Every year, its the same. Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix is full of tall girls stepping into vans, and athletic-looking types wearing polo shirts with college logos picking up rental cars.
Its the Nike Tournament of Champions, and as sure as Christmas carols get overplayed, the best high school teams in the country come to Chandler, Arizona, to decide things on the court.
This year, there are the usual highly ranked suspects scheduled to play in the Joe Smith Division, plus a few newcomers who are out to establish a reputation. The rookies, though, usually find it much harder than they expect to rack up wins theyre used to the usual high school or summer tournaments where the first game is almost always a gimme, and if things do go wrong, and the losers bracket beckons, it will be smooth sailing to a few more wins.
But not in this tournament. There are four games in five days (starting Friday, ending Tuesday, with Sunday off), and all four in the Joe Smith Division will be flat-out wars. There are no easy games, no breathers, no blowouts that are guaranteed to get even the last player in the rotation on the floor for eight minutes. There are college-level players everywhere, and college coaches (the ones with the polos and rental cars) everywhere as well.
The Los Angeles Sparks have named Jennifer Gillom as their new head coach, succeeding Michael Cooper who left to take the reins at the University of Southern California, the team announced Monday. Meanwhile, Minnesota has hired former Detroit Shock general manager and assistant coach Cheryl Reeve to fill Gillom's former job at the coaching helm of the Lynx, that team announced last week.
Gillom, who was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year, starred at the University of Mississippi under Van Chancellor who later became the first coach of the Houston Comets. A Kodak All-American, Gillom is the second all-time scoring leader at Ole Miss, her 2,186 career points second only to her sister Peggie.
After graduation, Gillom played professionally overseas, primarily in Italy, with stints in Greece, Spain and Turkey. Gillom then went on to a seven-year career as a player in the WNBA. Her best years came early in that career, with Gillom reaching her career-high in 1998, when she finished with an average of 20.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Though most of her career was spent with the Phoenix Mercury, she played her final season, 2003, with the Sparks. Unfortunately, that year was one of decline, as Gillom retired with a career average that had dropped to 13.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
"I am extremely excited to return to the city of Los Angeles and begin this new journey as head coach of the Sparks," said Gillom. "This is a storied franchise with a championship caliber team. I look forward to being part of the future success and am eager to continue building the Sparks legacy."
Gillom won five gold medals, including a gold from the 1988 Olympics, and one silver as a player for USA Basketball, and was named the 1985 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year. In addition to her '88 Olympic gold, she owns golds from the 1986 and 2002 World Championships, and took golds at the 1987 Pan American Games and the 1986 Goodwill Games; her silver came from the 1986 World University Games.
Gillom was tapped this summer to serve as an assistant to storied coach Geno Auriemma, who is heading the 2010 Women's World Championship and 2012 London Olympics teams.
Gillom began her coaching career in 2004 with the girls' basketball team at Xavier College Preparatory, an all-girls Catholic high school in Phoenix, Arizona, where she compiled a 130-25 record in five seasons. Under her leadership, her high school Gators have annually advanced to the state tournament for the past four years, and Gillom has received regional coach-of-the-year honors in each of those years.
But her coaching experience in the pros is limited to say the least. Gillom served as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Lynx in 2008. She was elevated to the position of interim head coach for the Lynx last year after Don Zierden abruptly resigned to join Flip Saunders' staff with the NBA's Washington Wizards three days before the start of the season.
The Lynx got off to a strong start under Gillom's tutelage, and were 4-1 when marquee player Seimone Augustus went down to a season-ending ACL tear on June 17 just six games into the season. The Lynx held on for the next two weeks, pulling out three more wins against two additional losses in the month of June, but without Augustus, Minnesota soon unraveled, going on a six-game losing streak and finishing a disappointing 14-20.
Perhaps as a result of that shaky head coaching debut, Minnesota bypassed Gillom in favor of former Detroit assistant coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve. The Lynx formally announced Reeve's appointment as head coach last week, though the move has been rumored for weeks now.
Two more disparate resumes would be difficult to imagine. Reeve has 21 years of coaching experience, including five years as an assistant coach at George Washington, and five years as head coach at Indiana State from 1995-2000, where she led the team to its first postseason appearance in 20 years at the culmination of the 1998-99 season. Reeve has spent nine years in the WNBA as an assistant to various teams, launching her her coaching career in the pros in 2001 as an assistant to Anne Donovan with the Charlotte Sting. In Reeve's first year with the team, the Sting improved to 18-14 from the previous year's record of 8-24, and advanced to the WNBA Finals appearance. The following year, the Sting repeated their 18-14 record, and made another post-season appearance.
After Donovan left the Sting at the end of 2002 to become head coach of the Seattle Storm, Reeve moved to the Cleveland Rockers, apprenticing under Dan Hughes. The Rockers also advanced to the playoffs that year, but the ownership pulled the plug on the franchise at the end of the season. Reeve returned to the Sting staff, again as an assistant, for the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
From 2006-2009, Reeve served as assistant coach of the Detroit Shock under Bill Laimbeer, whom she helped guide the Shock to their 2006 and 2008 WNBA championships. Last year, after Laimbeer's departure, Reeve served as an assistant on the sidelines to Rick Mahorn, while at the same time assuming Laimbeer's duties as the Shock's general manager. Laimbeer, who is now an assistant with the Minnesota Timberwolves, is said to have given Reeve a glowing recommendation for the Lynx head coaching job.
Reeve played at LaSalle in the 1980s, and a graduate position at LaSalle was her first coaching position. But Reeve never played professional ball.
If the Monarchs were any good, theyd still be around which means Mondays dispersal draft isnt going to rock the WNBAs world.
Yes, Nicole Powell is a very good player, and shell add value to any roster (even as trade bait, should she go to Minnesota). Rebekkah Brunson, prior to her knee problems, was an elite athlete, and despite her decline would help any team in the league.
After that, though, its banged-up vet DeMya Walker, the uncertainty of Courtney Paris, and well, not much else, so teams are not going to solve all their problems on Monday, or more likely, any of them.
Of course, with free agency and the draft still to come, theres plenty of time to maneuver, so the rosters will be far from set. Still, some pieces of the 2010 puzzle will fall into place, so heres a look at what might happen when the Monarch players change jerseys.
Hartford is a good team, one that has beaten both Louisville and Temple. Temple is nationally ranked; Louisville was at the time.
But the Hawks did not look that good in this game. The reason: The Husky defense appears to be just that good.
I know these teams are better than they look against us, but they can't look that good the way we're playing defense, Coach Auriemma said after the game. Our defense has worked really hard. They've worked really hard in practice. They work really hard in games.
Hartford Coach Jen Rizzotti, who knows something about UConn's approach, agreed. They make you feel like there's eight guys out there defending you, she said. And no matter what you do and what option you choose, there's some long arm in the way of the pass you want to make. It is phenomenal, and I know it's something they pride themselves on, and it's what separates them from everyone else in the country. . . .Defense isn't about being an All American, she added. Defense is all about desire and position and heart. Hartford scored its first field goal at 12:55.
There's been a lot of hype lately about things that aren't likely to happen on the women's professional basketball scene. First, the Monarchs folded, and the league began a hurried pursuit of an investor willing to relocate the team in the Bay Area. While that still theoretically could happen, the clock's ticking down on the time to nail down next summer's schedule, and a meeting of the league's Board of Governors came and went without an announcement.
Then we learned that convicted felon Marion Jones is working out with the coaching staff of the San Antonio Silver Stars with an eye to relaunching the sports career she lost when busted for taking designer steroids and lying about it. Quite apart from the issue of appearances in a league that has thus far managed to steer clear of cheating scandals, the fact that Jones is considering beginning her WNBA career at an age when many others are thinking about wrapping theirs up wasn't lost on many, Visions of Nancy Lieberman's publicity stunt with the Detroit Shock springs to mind.
Finally, NBA commissioner David Stern stretched credulity to its outer limits by attesting that there would be a woman playing in the WNBA within the next 10 years. Really? And is that, or should it be, the standard by which we measure the quality of women's athletics?
If you haven't been watching the scores, you might think this contest involved just another bad team. And you would be wrong. In the past week, the Catamounts beat both Boston College and NC State.mNow, neither is a Top-25 team, but they are solid ACC clubs, and Vermont entered their game against the Huskies 4-0. But with the way UConn is playing, even good teams look pretty bad. Except for Courtney Pilypaitis, Vermont looked bad.
The University of Vermont is universally called UVM (when initials are used), and I always assumed that it came from the letters in the word VerMont. Wrong. UVM stands for Univesitatis Viridis Montis (University of the Green Mountains). I didn't know that until reading the game notes, even though I have lived in New England for more than 30 years, and, more importantly, my daughter attends medical school there.
The Catamount women have four Vermonters on the roster, but they also have six players from Ontario, Canada, including three starters -- leading scorers Courtney Pilypaitis and May Kotsopoulos, and freshman Kendra Seto. Pilypaitis and Kotsopoulos have both averaged over 20 points per game in four games, and have hit all but two of the team's 21 three-pointers.
Courtney Pilypaitis would be a welcome addition to any team in the country, and would start on almost all of them. She is relentless, defends the point, creates her own shot, and scores most of the points. Sofia Iwobi is the team's leading rebounder at 5'9 (6.5 rebounds per game). She hails from Maharishi School (really) in Fairfield, Iowa.
Those with a decent memory will remember that Vermont pushed UConn hard in the NCAA tournament last season, even though they eventually lost 104-65. Tina Charles had 32 in that contest, but Pilypaitis had 24 for Vermont. Four of the Catamount starters are now seniors who played in that game. In March the team shot 46.4 percent from the field, far above the average UConn allowed its opponents last season. Unfortunately, for Vermont fans, the Huskies shot 63 percent, boosted by Charles's 13-for-14 from the field.
Now Vermont is back for more, agreeing to play again at Gampel Pavilion, where the Huskies have won 32 straight games, and 97 of their last 99. Playing lots of good teams is, obviously, a way to improve your club, and the schedule Coach Sharon Dawley has arranged for the Catamounts will more than get them ready for the America East Conference. They have already been picked to finish first (and gain the automatic, and likely the only, bid) in the Conference.
This time out, Vermont shot just 31 percent, UConn 59 percent. The final margin was the same, though the scores were lower for both teams.
First, a disclaimer: I did not attend these games. Too much driving at bad times on a post-holiday Sunday, and I needed to get in a bike ride, as the temperature was around 50 degrees in Southern Connecticut today.
The early game between Hofstra and Richmond was genuinely worth missing. These are the games that drive sports fans away from women's basketball. Hofstra lost a second consecutive one-point game at the free throw line. The Pride hit just nine of 19 freebies, and missed five in the final 1:17 of a game they lost 42-41. The victorious Richmond Spiders, who managed to get out of Storrs 2-1, shot a stunning 24 percent from the field, but hit that extra free throw (they were 10-of-15) to win the game. Hofstra finished the tournament 0-3.
The main event saw Connecticut beat Clemson, 87-48. But this game was not a bit like yesterday's. Connecticut shot two-of-15 from outside the arc, after hitting 10 threes in the first half alone on Saturday. For those who want to create nightmares about the Huskies, consider a performance by the guards like that against Stanford, and you have the makings of a blow-out by the Cardinal.
This week's column may be a bit more densely packed than usual. That's only appropriate, as it addresses a sensitive area for many fans of womens sports.
The goal is to make a relative comparison between womens and mens college basketball, and step one is to compare male and female players.
At one level, of course, thats easy: Men are, on average, bigger, faster and stronger. As a general matter, that translates to better. But how much better? (Well get to whether it matters next.)
The received physiological wisdom is that males of our species are about 15 percent stronger than females. In basketball terms, that translates into speed, quickness and jumping ability, three key components of basketball skill. The speed and jumping ability differences can be measured objectively in track, but quickness too is tied to musculature: Explosive movements take explosive muscle contractions, and since mens muscles are relatively bigger, they will be more explosive.
A digression: Sure, an elite female athlete can outperform an average male, but the comparison were trying to get to is between elite females and elite males. Theres no doubt the Phoenix Mercury could go down to the park on Saturday and win all day except of course if the Suns were there.
Its also true that men are taller, and nobody questions that basketball is a game that rewards the tall. My general rule of thumb is that there are about six inches difference when it comes to basketball in other words, a 5-8 female is comparable to a 6-2 male, relatively speaking, and a 6-4 female is comparable to a 6-10 male. What falls out of that is that 6-4 females are as rare as 6-10 males, and 5-4 females are as common as 5-10 males.
No. 24 Oklahoma Sooners spanked No. 20 San Diego State Aztecs and unranked Rutgers snapped the leash on the No. 17 Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs in a day of upsets among the Top 25 women's basketball teams in the country.
As day turned to dusk, the parade of upsets in the Top 25 continued at the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, as the unranked USC Women of Troy knocked the horns off No. 12-ranked Texas, 61-54. The Longhorns were the highest ranked team in the nation to lose today.
On paper, at least, the Oklahoma-San Diego State contest on day two of the Paradise Jam looked likely to be one of the most even match-ups on a day on which many of the Top 25 found themselves paired off against what can charitably be called lightweight opponents. That's why they play the game of basketball on the hardwood, not on paper, however.
In fact, the game turned into a rout, with the Sooners toasting the Aztecs, 87-48. The 39-point margin of victory was Oklahoma's largest ever against a nationally ranked opponent. (The previous record of 34 points was sent on November 12, 2006, when OU defeated then-No. 20 DePaul,105-71, in its season opener.)
Rutgers' 62-54 upset of No. 17 Mississippi State, wasn't a rout. But then again, Rutgers wasn't even nationally ranked. And it was the second loss in as many days for the 'Dawgs, who dropped their game against the 12th ranked Texas Longhorns yesterday.
But tonight, the 'Horns weren't so lucky. They, too, fell to an unranked team, the University of Southern California, who are now 2-3 on their season.
It may have been a day of upsets for some Top 25 teams, but such was not the case in Gampel Pavillion. To no one's great surprise, UConn trounced Hofstra, 91-46.
The victory was Associate Head Coach Chris Dailey's 700th win at UConn. It was, not coincidentally, also Geno Auriemma's 700th win. Auriemma leads all Division I coaches with a .851 winning percentage.
Asked to comment on the 700th win, Auriemma said, I think I can remember every single game I ever coached . . . I can probably tell you something that one of my players did [in each of the games] that still stays with me all of these years.
But on winning 700? I'm not a put-it-all-in-perspective kind of guy. That's not what I do.
Later: If you ask me . . . we won our first game we ever played. That was really cool. And I told Jamelle [Elliott Cincinnati's new head coach and former UConn assistant] that. They won their first game and I told her, 'You remember that the rest of your life.' . . . We went 7-0 my first year.' And she says, 'Then what?' I said, 'We lost 10 straight.'