Competition hits full-court press Women are closer to 64-team tourney COLLEGE BASKETBALL

November 30, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

Just four years ago, Tennessee women's basketball coac Pat Summitt said before a Final Four that parity hadn't yet arrived in her sport.

Two years later, a proposed professional women's league announced plans to lower the rims, shorten the court and make (( the playing uniforms more form-fitting to make the game more appealing to casual basketball fans.

Now, after answering questions about its viability, proponents of the women's game are talking about expanding the NCAA tournament size to 64 teams, from 48, to match the men's postseason field.

"In the past, we didn't have a large enough base of quality teams to field a large tournament. We had a nucleus, but not a base. But today, we do have enough quality teams to have a 64-team field and a competitive tournament field all the way through," said North Carolina State coach Kay Yow, whose Wolfpack missed last year's tournament despite a 16-12 mark and a good non-conference record.

Virginia coach Debbie Ryan, who has led the Cavaliers to three straight Final Fours, said, "We're beyond the structure that we have now and we're impeding our progress by continuing to do what we do now. It's just not happening fast enough for us. We're having sellout crowds at our first-round games, and you would think that would be indication enough that it's time to expand the tournament, but it hasn't happened."

The increase in attendance at women's games and the host of quality teams left out of the field would appear to be proof positive that the tournament, which has expanded twice since its inaugural 32-team field in 1982, needs to grow again.

But the NCAA executive committee has voted down proposed tournament expansions to 56 or 64. With the white-hot issue of gender equity hovering over college athletics, however, many believe expansion is just around the corner.

The issue of tournament size is of particular interest in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has moved to challenge the Southeastern Conference for women's basketball supremacy, yet could place only four of its teams in last year's field, leaving N.C. State, Florida State and Georgia Tech on the outside looking in.

"I know that if those teams had been independents or had been from other conferences, they would have been there. There's no question about that," said North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, whose Tar Heels advanced to the second round of the tournament.

The selection committee likely will have a difficult time this season fitting a growing number of quality teams into the field, though they shouldn't have a problem distinguishing the head of the class.

That spot is expected to be filled by Stanford, the defending champion. The Cardinal returns all five starters, including 6-foot-3 center Val Whiting, a national Player of the Year contender, and point guard Molly Goodenbour, who was Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four last year.

No women's team has won consecutive championships in the tournament's nine years, but the Cardinal, ranked No. 1 in preseason by most national magazines and the Associated Press and armed with its second title in three years, seems as capable to repeat as any team in recent memory.

"I don't want to put that pressure [to repeat] on us, but I definitely feel it. I know that our team does, too," Stanford coach Tara VanDeveer said. "But we're ready for the challenge of going back-to-back. We're an experienced team. More than anything, I think we have a confidence and a commitment. We're not complacent at all."

There won't be time for that anyway, because Stanford opens tomorrow with No. 15 Texas Tech, and the Wahine Classic in Hawaii next weekend that could produce a meeting with second-ranked Tennessee.

Tennessee, which was eliminated in the Mideast Regional semifinals last season by Western Kentucky, the eventual national runner-up, has a tenuous hold on No. 2, given season-ending injuries to senior point guard Jody Adams and freshman Michelle Johnson, who was expected to contribute immediately.

Those injuries might open the door for Vanderbilt, which has 6-10 center Heidi Gillingham, the tallest player in women's basketball, to take the SEC.

Maryland and Virginia, which each spent time atop the polls last season, figure to fight it out for ACC supremacy, though each team has a significant question to answer.

For Virginia, the question is simple: How do you replace Dawn Staley and Tammi Reiss, the best backcourt in women's basketball for the past three years?

Staley, a two-time National Player of the Year, and Reiss, an All-American last season, led the Cavaliers to three straight Final Four appearances, but now they're gone, and the way Virginia responds to their departure will determine whether a fourth national title chase is possible.

Maryland, which lost to Western Kentucky in the Mideast finals, is a quality point guard away from making a solid Final Four run, and Terps coach Chris Weller is testing four candidates.

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