Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Men and Women Are Different, But Not All That Different

No coach can be expected to like the idea that his or her team winning is bad for their sport, so naturally Geno Auriemma, a combative soul, took the heat when Dan Shaughnessy suggested that the UConn women's team 98-38 victory over Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament was both boring and unhealthy for women's basketball as a whole.

Aside from a few locations, of which Connecticut is one, women's basketball just ain't that popular in this country, so its adherents are very sensitive to what they perceive as slurs on their game. A chorus of condemnation fell on Dan's head.

Both sides of this dispute, if we can dignify with that name, resolutely ignored the obvious. Whether it's played by men or women, college basketball has always been a sport of dynasties and dominance (Pro basketball, too). It can't be otherwise, since as the team sport with the fewest players, superior individual players are always going to have more of an impact than in games with more players.

UConn has been overwhelmingly dominant the last four women's seasons. It's won 73 games in a row. Nobody on earth picked anyone but them to win the tournament this year. Why, if I wasn't old enough to remember when Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton played for UCLA, I'd almost call the Huskies' dominance unprecedented.

(We pause here for an historical note. The UConn women play with a shot clock. The UCLA men of the '60s and '70s did not. If they had, they'd have won a lot of games by 50 or more, too.)

It's difficult to say the men's game is built on competitive balance when the Final Four is a parade of very usual suspects Villanova, North Carolina and Syracuse, with Oklahoma as the rogue outsider. The truth is, about a dozen mini-dynasties start out each November with a realistic shot at the national title, with the rest playing for first and second round tourney upsets.

The NCAA women's tournament was founded in 1982. Since then, 13 different schools have won national titles. In that same span, 21 different schools have won the men's title. That's a difference in degree, not kind.

In the 33 years before the women's tournament began, 16 different men's teams won titles. In addition to UCLA's 10 championships in 12 seasons, the other schools (Kentucky, San Francisco and Cincinnati) won back-to-back titles from 1948-1981. For whatever reason, San Francisco's being named Bill Russell, those teams dominated their time almost as thoroughly as the current crop of UConn women.

The evidence suggests that the women's game appears more dynastic than the men's mostly because it's newer. That means the game is played by fewer individuals in general, so the teams with vastly superior individual players will enjoy more complete mismatches than the men do today (the decline of the center position as basketball's vital ingredient plays a role in the apparent parity of the men's game as well).

Time should make the women's game less dynastic (UConn aside, there have been many more upsets in their tournament than in past years). That in turn should make it more popular. One thing I know for sure about fans of any sport. They thoroughly enjoy watching their team blow some opponent away. But nobody wants to watch the home team or dear old alma mater LOSE by 60.


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