INDIANAPOLIS -- It's been a long time coming, this shiny silver trophy. They've gathered in the lobby of Bankers Life Fieldhouse to celebrate as rain has driven the festivities indoors, cancelling the planned parade. But the weather has done nothing to dampen the spirits of the fans who have taken time out in the middle of their workday or of the team whose ultimate success, so long in arriving, they have assembled here to salute.
When competition started Thursday, most observers assumed that by the night’s end, there would be a three-way tie at the top of the Big Ten Conference. But by the time it was over, only one team held the top spot -- and that was Purdue, the team that did not play.
The 12 teams that make up the Big Ten are a collective 81-41 in the preseason as of Saturday, December 17. The top three teams, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Northwestern have racked up an impressive combined record of 26-2.
The bottom three teams of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana are a combined 11-18.
What that all boils down to is this: Parity in the Big Ten women's basketball? Still illusory. Competitiveness within tiers? Very much in vogue.
Lets take a look at those six teams and try to figure out how they got to where they are today.
After a number of years in which the conference earned little respect, the Big Ten is beginning to show signs of resurgence and, at least at the top, has put an improved product on the court in 2009-10. A strong group of returning stars has been joined by a solid contingent of newcomers to improve the overall strength of the conference.
As 2010 dawns and conference play gets under way in earnest, only two teams in the conference are nationally ranked. Ohio State has been in the Top 10 of Full Court's national rankings -- as well as in the AP and coaches' polls -- all season. They are currently ranked No. 8 by Full Court. Michigan State's stock has fallen after several early season stumbles, but the Spartans are nonetheless ranked No. 14 by Full Court and are in the Top 25 in both other polls.
Still, only one place in the conference standings seems certain. Ohio State is easily the top team in the league and should play late into the NCAA tournament. Michigan State should finish close to Ohio State but they have been erratic to date, notching several quality wins including upsets of Top 25 teams, then promptly losing to dubious competition.
The other nine teams in the league all have major questions marks, but most have potential answers on the floor. Still, their order of finish appears even less clear at this point than usual. Some teams, such as Wisconsin and Penn State are currently exceeding preseason expectations, while elsewhere, injuries are already having a major impact on the league and only the top two teams have the depth to survive an ACL tear or two. Positions three through 11 in the final conference standings may well be determined by how many players each team has in uniform and how many it has in street clothes when the dust settles on season play.
There is an old jazz standard dating back to 1917 called Back Home Again in Indiana that's been covered by artists from Louis Armstrong and Neil Diamond to Jerry Garcia and the Purdue marching band. "I long for my Indiana home," the lyrics conclude, and the Indiana Fever may very well be longing for exactly that come Friday night when they take the floor for the deciding game of the WNBA Finals at the U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona, far from the two sellout crowds that cheered their lungs out for the home team here in Indianapolis this week.
But it will be the Phoenix Mercury who now get to go home again, and play for the WNBA Championship on their home court, tying this series at two games apiece and forcing a fifth and final game, as they cruised to a 90-77 game here in Indianapolis Wednesday night in the most lopsided contest of this WNBA Finals series.
The Fever broke new ground just by making it to the WNBA Finals, and most considered them the underdogs in this series by a fair margin -- until the series tipped off, that is, and Indiana showed just what a contender it was. Hopes flew high here in the Hoosier capitol, as the Fever took one from the Mercury on the road, then returned "Back Home Again in Indiana," to eke out a one-point victory in Game Three and take the lead in the series, two games to one.
One of those convinced the home team would close things out Wednesday was Bill York, a long-time member of the media relations staff for the Indiana Pacers (they named the press room after him), who now runs the statistics operations not only for the Pacers and the Fever, but for the Indianapolis Colts and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as well. A consummate gentleman, York identified himself only by name, and not by position, as he pulled out a chair and invited me to join his table in the media dining room and then handed me the two championship rings he was wearing in honor of the occasion -- one for the Colts and one, with three diamond chips in it, marking the three national championship titles owned by the Pacers.
"We need another one for the ladies," said York. He was thoroughly convinced they would earn it Wednesday night.
It would mean quite a lot, not only to York, but to the city, indeed, the entire state, had the Fever pulled it off. The Pacers ring with its three diamond chips that York was wearing is a approaching antique status, dating back almost 40 years to the days of the ABA when the Pacers won national championships in 1970, 1972 and 1973. It's been a long, dry spell since then. Though the Pacers pulled off several division titles in the Reggie Miller era, they own exactly the same number of NBA conference titles as the Fever now do -- one. An NBA or a WNBA championship has eluded both teams.
Needless to say, York, and nearly 20,000 other Indiana fans in the building, would be sorely disappointed, as the Fever stumbled badly in their effort to close out this championship series at home. They may yet be able to grab another win in Phoenix, but as head coach Lin Dunn conceded, they've set up a situation where they're going to have to do it the hard way.
The Phoenix Mercury know exactly what they have to do to tie up their WNBA Finals series with the Indiana Fever tonight: "We've got to get defensive stops and ... we've got to knock down shots," summed up Cappie Pondexter. The same refrain was echoed by several of her teammates.
Interestingly enough, the Indiana Fever also know exactly what they have to do to pull out their first-ever WNBA Championship and it sounds pretty much the same: "Be better than before," said Ebony Hoffman. "We have had good offensive games; we've had semi-good defensive games, but everything has to click right now."
Sounds pretty much like what any team has to do to win, whether the sport be basketball, football, soccer or badminton: Hold 'em on defense and put some points on the board.
It's the third straight day of post-game/pre-game/practice/shoot-around media availability since the Fever took their 2-1 lead in the Championship series with an 86-85 win over the favored Mercury, and the clichs flying through the air are thicker than the cow paddies in an Indiana pasture.
"This series (game, title) will go to the team that wants it the most." Can't tell you how many players I've heard that one from; you can pretty much run through both rosters, and not just here in the Finals. It's been trotted out almost nightly by one player or another since mid-September.
But really? I've got a sign-up list for those who'd like to break the news to Tamika Catchings, should the Fever lose their next two games, that the reason she still doesn't have a ring is that she just didn't "want it" enough. Or try telling Taurasi, if it's Phoenix that falters, that she's the one who just didn't want a championship quite badly enough this year.
Both teams need to "stay focused." Both teams need to "bring it" for the full 40 minutes without "breakdowns" or "lapses." Both need to come out with "energy" and "intensity." Neither team feels like they've played their best game yet.
On offense, the Fever want to "keep trying to attack" the basket in the words of Indiana GM Gary Kloppenburg. "We feel we can get some really easy baskets. Keep trying to attack them, be patient when we don't have it. Not turn it over. Knock down our inside shots."
"We just wanted to make an effort to look into the post a little bit more," said the Mercury's Le'coe Willingham. "It definitely helps us ... when we're not knocking down the shots from outside to get in the paint and get some easy buckets."
On defense, it's more of same. Both teams say they need to step up their offensive rebounding and work on boxing out. Everyone wants to get a hand in someone else's face.
Phoenix knows they have to get "more into the flow of [the Mercury] style of offense," said Coach Corey Gaines.
"I think we just need to stick to what we know we need to do. Playing Fever defense," said Indiana's Tammy Sutton-Brown.
In mid-May, with the 2009 WNBA season set to commence, a poll of the league's general managers predicted that the Los Angeles Sparks would win it all. By a wide majority, they thought the Sparks would get there by overcoming the Detroit Shock, who were forecast to once again with the Eastern Conference Championship.
Though both those teams made a run of it, neither will be on hand when the WNBA finals kick off Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m. Eastern at the U.S Airways Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.
Instead, when the opening buzzer sounds for tomorrow's Game One, it will be the Eastern Conference Champion Indiana Fever, a team that prides on its defensive intensity, facing off against the Western Conference Champion Phoenix Mercury, the league's best offensive team, one that equates scoring 100 points as its best defense against defeat. Only 25 percent of the league's GMs gave the Fever their vote of confidence for being there before the season began. Still fewer, just 17 percent, thought the Mercury would win the Western Conference and make their way to the Finals.
But that's why they play the game of basketball of basketball on the hardwood, not on a statistician's computer. Few who watched the Mercury burn up the league this season and put away the vaunted Sparks post legends could deny they're the team that deserves to be duking it out for this year's WNBA title. And though the Fever dropped seven of their 10 final regular-season games, Indiana more than earned its right to contend by dominating the Eastern Conference throughout the regular season and dethroning the reigning WNBA Champs, the Detroit Shocks, in three close second round playoff games.
It will be Indiana's first trip to the WNBA Finals, and the third for Phoenix, who finished last in the West last season and taking it all in 2007. The two teams have never before met in the playoffs, and for those who try to predict the outcome by dredging through the history of past meetings of importance between clubs on the verge of a monumental series, there is little here to hang one's hat on here.
Predicting the future of the WNBA requires a good deal of tea-leaf reading. After all, you can't depend on league president Donna Orender or other WNBA execs to give you the full scoop -- especially if the forecast includes foul weather. After attending recent WNBA games in Seattle, Los Angeles and Phoenix, I have reached a few conclusions about the direction in which the league may be heading -- conclusions far different from what many, myself included, suspected just a few months ago.
First and foremost, contrary to what the league's naysayers have been insinuating (some with near-joy) since this past winter, I do not see the WNBA going out of business after the 2009 season. In fact, despite my own more moderate beliefs that a team or two might fold before next season, there is probably at least as good a chance that the league will have 14 franchises next year as that it will have 12 or 13 (the current number).