When No. 2 seeded Duke open NCAA tournament play against No. 15 Hampton, on the surface, this appears to be a David versus Goliath matchup -- and if NCAA tournament history repeats its self, the top seed will prevail.
But what the Blue Devils are in store for the is No. 1 defensive team in the nation, a team that allows just 47 points per game and 32% from the field, far different than the 75 points per game that Duke averages.
Yes, the Hampton Pirates actually have a chance of pulling off an upset, especially with Chelsea Gray sidelined for the Blue Devils. Not only is Hampton defensive-minded, the four-time defending MEAC Champions are led by senior Keiara Avant, who averages 16 points and 10 rebounds per game, and they have three other players who average double digits.
But the real success of this program started in 2009 when the Hampton athletic department hired David Six as the head coach. If you don’t know about Six, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention. Six has won big at every level, both with boys and girls in high school and now at the college level. He took previously unsuccessful programs, such as Hampton High School in Virginia, and turned them into national powers. He won two state titles at Hampton, the first in the history of the girls' program there.
Despite that success, he found it tough to get a job at the college level. In fact, he took a job at Hampton as director of intramural sports for a year just to get on campus. When the Lady Pirates fired their coach after the 2009 season, they named Six the interim coach.
With his trademark brutal practices and emphasis on conditioning, he slowly got his team to believe that itcould compete with and ultimately beat the best teams in the conference. Six promptly led the Lady Pirates to the MEAC title in his first season, earning a three-year contract. Since then, he’s won three more MEAC titles, including running the table in the league this year and leading his team to 28 wins -- the most since the Pirates won the NCAA Div II title back in 1988.
The Brooklyn native has built his program on defense, endurance, rebounding and ball control. His players have a lot of leeway on offense as long as they don't turn the ball over, and their defense creates a lot of offense thanks to the ball pressure and emphasis on defending the rim. Six has recruited disciplined players who know exactly what to expect when they come to Hampton, and the result is a culture of winning that is now perpetuating itself.
In many ways, this was Six's most challenging year. He had a dangerous rival in Howard that was eager to take back the league crown and he had to deal with 21 games worth of major player injuries. Despite those problems, Hampton beat major-conference opponents such asLSU, Mississippi State and Boston College while ranking in the top 100 of the RPI.
All of this is wonderful for Hampton, a school with a great deal of history and pride in its women's program. However, one must wonder why neither Six nor a coach with the success level of James Madison's Kenny Brooks so much as got a phone call when head coaching jobs opened up at the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, or Old Dominion.
At the last program, at least, Karen Barefoot made sense as a replacement for Wendy Larry because of her time there as an assistant and proven track record of resurrecting programs. Virginia got a big-time name in Joanne Boyle, a coach known for her recruiting prowess and ability in bringing fallow programs to prominence. However, Virginia Tech is another story. After firing Beth Dunkenberger, the Hokies inexplicably hired Dennis Wolff, who had no experience coaching women's basketball and had been out of coaching for a number of years.
After two seasons, the Hokies are 17-43 and 7-27 in ACC play. To his credit, Wolff has the Hokies playing tough defense, but they simply can't score and their recruiting has been shaky. Interestingly, one of his team's best games this year was in its win over Hampton, which was one of the Lady Pirates' worst showings of the season. That said, it was shameful that the Hokies conducted a job search that didn't even reach out to nearby, qualified candidates with a proven track record.
With many new coaching positions already opening up this season and several more to follow, things could change for Six. Although he is in a tough spot because there are many women's basketball programs that historically have only hired women for head coaching jobs. This is something I can understand given the dearth of opportunity for women in the men's game. That didn't stop Virginia Tech, of course, which raises the question (even at a subconscious level) of race. There are many Southern schools that have never had a black head coach in any sport. I wouldn't call this a matter of direct racism, but rather an institutional history of a certain kind of authority figure on campus. These sorts of trends are very slowly starting to crack given the greater opportunities being seized by African-American coaches at every level of the game.
It's not so much that I think Six should flee Hampton and a Tidewater community he's been a part of for nearly 20 years. Rather, he and his program are owed a respect that he has earned through hard work and coaching the game the right way. Much as his program was disrespected with a 15 seed (shameful), Six is disrespected every time a regional job opens up and his name is not on the short list.
As for the game in Durham, Hampton will most likely have his squad double-down against Elizabeth Williams and try to deny her the ball. Though it's against his instincts, Six will need to mix a sagging man with some zone to stop Duke from getting penetration. The Pirates will have to roll the dice and hope that Duke's shooters are misfiring, but he'll still try to get turnovers by pressuring Alexis Jones and patrolling the passing lanes for lazy skip passes.
If they do pull off the upset, Six will be up for a major pay-raise and contract renewal -- or he could get scooped up by someone else as he continues his rise through the coaching ranks.