BY ADRIAN JARDING / Ball State Sports Link
Growing up in my house, March was my birthday month and the only sport on TV was NASCAR. Basketball and madness were not uttered outside of just saying it was tournament season.
Prior to my living in Indiana, I had lived in North Carolina, where I would argue basketball is bigger come March. In my time there Davidson, Duke and UNC all made deep runs and the latter two won championships. I still never payed much attention.
When I came to Indiana in 2012, I still had not caught hoops fever. After I arrived at Ball State in 2015, I was convinced there was no way I would like watching basketball — oh was I wrong.
So many in Sports Link wanted to get me interested. I watched an ample amount of Ball State games on the men’s and women’s side and still didn’t get it. You run up and down the court trying to put a ball in a hoop.
What was the appeal, especially when I could watch a compelling and complex football game instead?
Through hard work during my freshman year I earned a spot to work the Women’s Final Four in Indianapolis for the NCAA in 2016. Not really knowing what to expect, I went in just excited to work a National Championship.
Then I was introduced to Geno Auriemma.
Great coaching is the way to my heart as a sports fan. Tony Dungy, Chad Knaus and David Marsh are people whom I admire and respect because of their innovation and leadership. I love the strategic and philosophical side to sports more so than the athletic parts.
Geno got to the podium during a presser and started talking about body language. He said he doesn’t want players who aren’t invested throughout the whole game. He would rather lose with players who care than win with players who don’t. I immediately had to look him up.
I came to find out he had won a record 10 national championships at the time. After hearing his incredible speech, I wasn’t shocked. He understood how great teams and people function. He won me over instantly.
UCONN went on to win its 11th National Championship. I became hooked on Geno and his program. I finally found out why basketball is awesome, even if it came on the other side of the gender coin.
Over the next few years while UCONN was suffering continual buzzer beater heartbreaks, my love for women’s basketball as a whole grew much more each year.
By my last year working for the NCAA as an extern in 2019, I started to get offended when people asked if I filled out a bracket in March, only for a moan when I mentioned filling a women’s bracket instead of a men’s.
To those who say the women’s game isn’t interesting let me pose a question: what was the last great men’s Final Four game?
Had to think a little? That’s alright, most I ask do. The most common answer I get is UNC vs. Villanova in 2016. Five years ago. Since that time you had three amazing Women’s Final Fours.
UCONN hasn’t won since 2016 and in that time there has been great parity. South Carolina, Notre Dame and Baylor have all won championships.
If the game is so easy and the competition isn’t great, why hasn’t UCONN won every year? Sure they make it to the Final Four each year, but the competition at that point is beyond fierce. It is also respected by the best of the best.
These last few years as a UCONN fan have made me appreciate how competitive the women’s game is.
In my research I would compare this era of women’s basketball to the time when John Wooden coached UCLA on the men’s side. Players stayed four years, the rivalries are fierce and you have extremely compelling stories and moments built up over time.
Just look at this year’s tournament. Indiana made its first Elite Eight appearance because of veteran leadership. They took down No. 1 seed NC State, the only one to be knocked out thus far.
I know, UCLA, Oral Roberts and Loyola stole the show this year on the men’s side. Yes, their tournament has been compelling, but so has the women’s in different ways.
Arizona made its first Final Four with head coach Adia Barnes, who was a player when they made the Sweet 16 in 1998. That was the Wildcats previous best run in the tournament.
You can look at the Women’s Final Four and say it’s chalk, which is 3/4 true. In that though, you’re going to likely have an amazing National Championship for the third consecutive year.
The winner of the intriguing South Carolina/Stanford matchup is likely to face UCONN. Is that a safe presumption though?
Nobody gave Mississippi State a chance to beat them in 2017. Arizona has a special player in Aari McDonald who can help pull off the big upset.
March has easily become a month I look forward to each year. I am forever hooked on women’s basketball and will proudly fill out my bracket while wearing UCONN gear every year.
I encourage you to watch the Final Four Friday night and the National Championship Sunday night. If you are skeptical, I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised.