It’s done. It’s over. Pack it up. The 2018-19 women’s college basketball season concluded Sunday as Baylor won its third-ever national title, and we can now look back at the season that was.
What a Final Four
For another year, the Final Four did not disappoint as all three games were classics that won’t be forgotten soon in the women’s basketball world. Some of the biggest names in the sport on the biggest stage with comebacks, last-minute winners and unforgettable moments that put the perfect exclamation point on a wild season.
That’s now two Final Fours in a row that have delivered in a major way, and the 2017 Final Four had its moments, too. The sport has come a long way from the total eviscerations UConn used to land on basically everyone. The Huskies still made the Final Four for the 12th year in a row, but it wasn’t the stroll in the park it seemingly used to be, and it’s clear that there are a handful of other programs that are, at the very least, on their level.
During Connecticut’s most recent streak of national titles, the common trope would be whether or not its dominance was good for the game. You could argue that it brought attention to the sport that otherwise wouldn’t have been there, and you’d be correct, and you could also argue that it made the tournament and season as a whole less exciting, and you’d also be correct. Now that there seems to be something closer to an equilibrium, hopefully it will increase interest as the season wears on and people want to find out who will sit atop the sport’s throne. Even if we operate under the assumption that the Connecticut machine was good for the game, it’s great to see some parity at the top and competitive games that decide the national title rather than 30-point beatings.
It’s rocky on Rocky Top
Before there was Connecticut, there was Tennessee. The Lady Vols won eight national championships between 1987 and 2008 and went to 11 Final Fours between 1995 and 2008. The first NCAA Division-I Women’s Basketball Tournament was held in 1982, and Tennessee has been involved in every single one. Only twice have the Lady Vols failed to win at least one tournament game: 2009 and 2019.
Tennessee is about as mighty as you can get in women’s basketball royalty, but the program is not what it once was. It’s current Final Four drought, dating back to 2008, is the longest in its history, and Tennessee hasn’t been out of the first weekend since 2016. The team barely squeaked into the tournament this year, avoiding abject disaster in Knoxville, but it wasn’t enough to save Holly Warlick’s job, who was fired at the end of the season after spending seven seasons in charge.
Kellie Harper appears to be Warlick’s successor. This year, she led Missouri State to its first Sweet 16 since 2001 and took the Lady Bears to the Big Dance twice in her six seasons at the helm. She played point guard at Tennessee from 1995-99 and was an important contributor to the 1996, 1997 and 1998 teams that all won national championships.
But as a head coach, she is yet to reach the heights Tennessee desires. Before going to Missouri State, Harper spent four seasons as the head coach at North Carolina State and five at Western Carolina, dating back to 2004-05. The Sweet 16 run this season was the first time she won a tournament game and the fifth NCAA Tournament appearance of her career.
That’s not to say she can’t turn things around in Knoxville, and there are natural advantages at a program of Tennessee’s caliber. But it’s going to be a difficult turnaround, and there will be plenty of attention paid to whether or not Harper can do it. This feels like a pivotal moment in Lady Vols basketball history and a very important hire that could either make or break Tennessee’s ability to climb back into the national conversation for a handful of years.
Oregon is for real
There seems to be a new face in the upper echelon of women’s hoops, and it’s the Oregon Ducks. Before head coach Kelly Graves got the job in 2014, Oregon had won two regular season conference titles, two conference tournament championships, zero Sweet 16s, and hadn’t been to the Big Dance since 2005, let alone won a game. In the last three years, the Ducks have secured two regular season Pac-12 crowns, one conference tournament title, three-straight Elite Eights, culminating in the program’s first-ever Final Four in 2019.
This team gave Baylor, the eventual national champions, a serious run for its money. Only Stanford defeated the Bears this season, and only a select few game them a game. Oregon is a member of that handful and did it on one of the biggest stages.
Guard Maite Cazorla and forward Oti Gildon are the only players who will graduate this year. Guard Sabrina Ionescu decided to return for her senior year rather than enter the 2019 WNBA Draft. To say this team will be loaded next season is an understatement. I’d suspect the Ducks will trot out a similarly dominant offense to what we saw this year, and I don’t see any steps back with the talent that’s returning.
This season, Oregon got to its first Final Four. Next season, there’s a very realistic possibility it’ll get its first national championship.
Slowly, everyone is catching up
It has been four years since Connecticut last won a title, and each of the last three seasons have produced a different champion: South Carolina in 2017, Notre Dame in 2018 and Baylor in 2019. The Final Four and National Championship Game have become heartracing, down-to-the-wire battles, and we had some great Elite Eight action this time around, too.
But there was parity throughout the season, too. In one week in February alone, seven ranked teams lost to unranked teams, including Mississippi State’s loss to Missouri, Texas’s loss to Kansas State and Gonzaga’s loss to BYU. For much of the season, the AP top five changed from week to week because of all the losses, a sign of how much movement there was at the top during the course of the season.
There is still an upper crust in the women’s game that is head and shoulders above the rest. But there doesn’t appear to be one or two programs that are so far ahead of everyone else that it’s barely worth the nation’s time to show up. Connecticut might have lost only thrice on the year, but there were plenty of nail-biters in there, which is uncharted territory for that program. Vulnerability spanned the country and made for one of the most eventful seasons in recent memory.
The best are still the best. Three of the four Final Four participants are some of the most stories programs in the sport. Baylor is no small fry in women’s basketball, and the No. 1 overall seed winning the title isn’t a sign of great disturbance in the sport’s balance. But slowly, many programs are chipping away, growing and progressing to inch their way closer to those at the top. These things take time, but we’re beginning to see a new wave of women’s college basketball where more programs can rise to the elite level and are able to compete with the best of the best in one-game situations.