Notre Dame wasn’t always the Notre Dame you see today with a No. 1 seed and coming off two consecutive trips to the national championship game. Muffet McGraw was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame because of what she did with the program over her 26-season tenure.
Of course she had obvious advantages at Notre Dame in terms of its national profile and available resources. It’s also located in Indiana, a hotbed of basketball enthusiasm, and is relatively close to Chicago’s major population center.
But McGraw is a savvy coach who’s seen the game evolve and knows what it takes to move beyond being an NCAA tournament qualifier to become a perennial in the Sweet 16 or better. Notre Dame has been in 10 Sweet 16s in the last 16 years, won the 2001 national title and has four Final Four appearances.
“You know, I think success of the program is judged on how you do in the NCAA tournament,” she said. “We have been to 10 Sweet 16s, and I think we were a good program, but I don’t think we got the notoriety that we would expect until we got to the Final Four back-to-back. So four Final Fours and I think finally our program is on an elite level. I think it takes that really to get the respect from the people in the country.”
If NCAA performance is the way to measure the elite, near elite and everyone else, what distinguishes those better teams from those who are just happy to be there?
“(Players) have to be better. I think our recruiting has definitely changed, and we are getting more McDonalds All-Americans on our team,” McGraw said. “You have some special players like you have with (All-American) Skylar (Diggins) but you have to have good players around them like Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd and Natalie Achonwa. You have to continue the recruiting, that’s the rough part of the program, you have to continue. It’s a job that’s 24/7, 12 months a year, never ends, you go from one class to the next and you have to continue to bring in elite level players in order to sustain that.”
Yes UConn, Tennessee, Stanford and Notre Dame have better players. Recruiting is the name of the game. And women’s basketball does not have much depth in its talent pool. McGraw said it will take another generation before the women’s game has the kind of depth the men’s game has now. For the last two decades, elite recruits have flocked to those established, elite programs in a self-perpetuating cycle.
Not enough talent remains for any one non-elite program to consistently challenge. Of course there are exceptions, but it’s very hard for those programs to sustain that level.
Iowa players Samantha Logic and Morgan Johnson were asked to define the difference between top teams and teams that make the tournament but don’t progress far.
“I would say playing for 40 minutes,” Logic said.
“I think they are consistent in fundamentals all the time,” Johnson said. “They don’t have to worry about boxing out because that is something that’s a sustained thing through their entire season.”
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder agreed. The key to success in the NCAA tournament is playing consistently well enough through the course of the year so that you get a seed that gives you a better road.
Iowa’s seeds in recent years have produced little NCAA success. Under Bluder, Iowa has made the tournament 10 times and reached the second round four times. Six times UI was an eight or nine seed, which means even when you win round one you face the No. 1 seed in round two. Iowa was a six seed but had to play on Gonzaga’s home court in the opening round in 2011. It was a 10 seed in 2006 but lost to BYU in Denver. In 2001, Iowa was a four seed but was eliminated by Utah in Salt Lake City in the second round.
This seemed like a year when Iowa could make some hay in the Big Ten. Penn State was clearly the best team, but the rest of the league was jumbled and perennial bully Ohio State was down. Yet Iowa suffered through a five-game losing streak and finished 8-8 in the Big Ten and got a 9 seed.
Bluder has recruited good kids who graduate and are good citizens and role models. That is not a small thing. She’s been unlucky with injuries, but college basketball is full of programs with similar woes.
Are the expectations high enough at Iowa? Is it sufficient, given the character of the players recruited, to be first division Big Ten and make the NCAA tournament?
I am reminded of the Tom Davis situation. Davis won more men’s basketball games at Iowa than any other coach and never lost a first-round NCAA game to boot, but he was not tendered a contract because the athletic director at the time wanted the program to compete at an elite level. Iowa fans were split at the time but a number of them might say “be careful what you wish for,” given the next coach’s tenure.
Women’s sports are not measured the same way that football and men’s basketball are measured and maybe they shouldn’t be. You want to have the same expectations for your daughter as you do your son, but men’s revenue sports are different animals entirely.
If you don’t measure success in women’s sports the same as you measure success in men’s revenue sports, at least you can measure women’s sports against their peers. Iowa has not progressed beyond the first or second round of the tournament since Angie Lee’s first season as coach in 1996. But Bluder’s teams have won 62 percent of their games (252-156) through Sunday’s victory.
You know Bluder and her staff are trying to improve the talent level at Iowa. The sophomore class, of which Logic is the blue chipper, was ranked very high but the freshman class has been a bit of a disappointment. It’s no secret the team needs more quickness and athleticism when it comes to competing against top-25 programs, but those kinds of players have been hard to come by.
Iowa is a small state with low numbers of Division I recruits and another state university that recruits many of the same players. It’s not an easy sell to out-of-staters no matter how much we value the university and the young women who are currently on the roster.
On the other hand, would it be too much to ask for Iowa to at least occasionally get to the Sweet 16?
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball