Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Guru's Year In Review: The Pat Summit Story Dominated A Momentous 2011

By Mel Greenberg

PHILADELPHIA -- Overall, one could say 2011 saw success for the most part in both the collegiate and pro women’s game.

But when it comes to looking back at the top stories, which because of the way the calendar works covers both the end of 2010-11 and start of 2011-12, we find that life off the court dominated as much as what happened in the 40 minutes or slightly more after opening tipoffs to produce the headlines of the past 12 months.

And so it was right near the end of the summer offseason in August in the collegiate world that the top story of the year emerged when one looks back retrospectively.

On a day in which unexpected tremors that are more accustomed to the West Coast struck near the nation’s capital, a bigger shock wave rippled across America with the news of Hall of Fame Tennessee coach Pat Summitt revealing that at the young age of 59 the possessor of eternal energy announced she had been diagnosed several months earlier suffering from early onset Alzheimer.

The stunning news brought an outpouring of support from all walks of life as Summitt expressed she was going to fight this disease as hard as she could and would continue to be at the helm of the Lady Vols – hopefully for several more seasons.

Adjustments have been made and will continue to be made along the way with longtime associate head coach Holly Warlick now doing an admirable job handling postgame press conferences while Summitt appears on the Tennessee network wrap up at the same time.

The revelation is the top story of 2011 but the next chapters at Tennessee will surely work their way to be the top events of 2012.

At the moment it is a 50-50 situation whether Summitt’s extremely talented squad, dedicating a quest for a ninth NCAA title, will get the job done, though it is hard to use the phrase Cinderella in association with the Lady Vols’ longtime success.

Virginia, which was awarded with a brief appearance in the national rankings, struck from nowhere to hand Tennessee a loss last month none expected.

Top-ranked Baylor, which has one superstar in Brittany Griner and another in Odyssey Sims, rallied for a win against Summitt’s bunch and then several weeks later Stanford dominated on a sensational performance by senior Nnemkadi Oguwmike.

As Tennessee has hit the road, media coverage in towns along the way has already begun alluding this season as a farewell tour, though perhaps that characterization may be premature.

The Summitt story alone would be considered head of the pack in a look back to 2011 but because of the theme of life being bigger than the game itself then right behind came another shocker early last month.

That’s when Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke, who also previously coached Louisiana Tech, was killed along with his assistant Miranda Serna in a crash of a single-engine private Piper plane about 45 miles west of Little Rock, Arkansas while on a quick recruiting trip.

Olin Branstetter, 82, a former Oklahoma state senator who also had his wife, Paula, on the trip, piloted the plane and they also died when the plane went down.

Associate head coach Jim Littell was quickly named interim coach and then several weeks later the university gave him the job outright as Budke’s successor, calling him “a rock” for the grieving Cowgirls.

As the season resumes following the Christmas break Oklahoma State is unbeaten at 7-0 as it heads to open a tournament in Reno, Nev., against Mississippi State.

But when 2012 arrives things will begin to get tougher with the rugged Big 12 conference portion of the schedule just ahead.

Surprise Coaching Moves

Player stats gave way to performance stats after last season ended and though administrators in each situation tried to put window dressing on the move, it was nevertheless stunning to see the exits of two Hall of Fame coaches in Van Chancellor at LSU and Debbie Ryan at Virginia.

Right along with them deserving of the same Hall of Fame stature at some point in the future was the departure of Wendy Larry at Old Dominion.

And so the annual game of musical chairs began with Nikki Caldwell moving to LSU from UCLA after bringing the Bruins back to prominence in a short amount of time.She was replaced by former Florida State associate head coach Cori Close and Larry was replaced by former assistant Karen Barefoot, who had been the head coach at Elon.

On her own move Karen Aston left Charlotte to return to the Lone Star State at North Texas. Cathy Andruzzi’s exit at Fordham brought Stephanie Gaitley, a former Villanova star, back to the Atlantic 10 from Monmouth.

Former players at perennial nationally-ranked schools moved into head coaching ranks with former UNC All-American Charlotte Smith replacing Barefoot at Elon and former North Carolina State’s Jenny Palmateer replacing Gaitley at Monmouth.

Tia Jackson, now an assistant at Rutgers, was let go at Washington and replaced by Xavier’s Kevin McGuff, who had made the Musketeers into a top 10 power but was losing Amber Harris and Ta’Shia Phillips to graduation and the WNBA. Amy Waugh, a former Xavier star who had been a McGuff assistant, replaced him.

Joanne Boyle left California to replace Ryan at Virginia and Cal-Santa Barbara’s Lindsey Gottlieb, who had been previously on Boyle’s staff, replaced her.

Two other long-time associate head coaches besides Close got their own programs with Carlene Mitchell moving from Rutgers and Hall of Famer C. Vivian Stringer to replace Gottlieb at UCSB and Nicci Hays-Fort leaving DePaul and Doug Bruno to coach at Colgate.

Another shock came right from the heart of the NCAA where Sue Donohoe, who had guided the women’s tournament for the past decade, announced her departure, which occurred last month leaving the position vacant for some time to come in the months ahead.

But Donohoe didn’t stay unemployed long being hired to replace Marsha Sharp, who had returned to an administrative position at Texas Tech, to oversee the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

And then there’s impending movement of teams involved in conference realignment but that is more a story for 2012 in terms of women’s basketball.Consider the total movement of everyone as an ongoing annual story.

Delle Donne Newsworthy String Continues

In terms of individual trials and tribulations and ultimate redemption, so far, Delaware junior Elena Delle Donne stands out.

The former Ursuline Academy star and national high school player of the year out of Wilmington, Del., has been among the top stories for several years now.

In 2008 it was her decision to forego a scholarship to UConn and enrolling at Delaware but to play volleyball.

Then in 2009 she decided to return to the sport of her acclaim, joining up with Tina Martin’s Blue Hens and earning both conference player and rookie of the year in the Colonial Athletic Association following the 2010 portion of the season.Delle Donne then spent most of last season missing a chunk of 12 games while fighting her way back from the effects of Lyme Disease.

She was able to lead the Blue Hens to two upsets and the CAA title game after she began to recovery.

Then restored to full health she made the USA World University Games squad helping a squad loaded with the best collegiate talent win a gold medal.

The momentum from that success has carried to this season where she is again the nation’s top scorer and has carried Delaware into a first-ever national ranking beating Penn State and Villanova out of the BCS leagues while also beating Princeton and St. Bonaventure among mid-major teams doing well.

A major test looms potentially Thursday night in No. 5 Maryland’s tournament assuming the Blue Hens and host Terrapins get to the title game.

Then we shall see what happens when CAA play gets under way in a chase Delaware is favored to finish first.Next on the top stories list is basically a tie out of the collegiate and pro worlds but since we’ve been speaking about collegiate life we will keep it there first.

Upsets In Indy

The Women’s Final Four brought more surprises than expected.

When 2011 began Stanford had just beaten Connecticut to end the Huskies’ 90-game NCAA record win streak.

They were expected to potentially meet again the NCAA title game, though it was projected that Baylor would return to potentially make its way to the championship and there was an expectation when the bracket was revealed that Tennessee would also be in the mix.

None of the above happened. Notre Dame paced by Skylar Diggins upset Tennessee in the Regional title game while Texas A&M guided by ageless Gary Blair upset its Big 12 rival Baylor in the fourth meeting of the season between the two.

Diggins became somewhat of a social phenom in terms of picking up followers on her twitter account.

Then at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in the semifinals Texas A&M rallied to edge Stanford while Notre Dame on its fourth try upset Connecticut and get to the title game where the Aggies upset the Irish to win a first-ever title.

Several months later Texas A&M made it known it was heading to the SEC.

The semifinal results brought to the end the collegiate career of UConn great Maya Moore, but she helps us transition here to the pro world where one more championship lost later became one new championship gained.

WNBA: Moore The Final Lynx In Minnesota Title Run

Moore became the overall top pick of the forlorn WNBA Minnesota Lynx, who with a stockpile of talent acquired through several years of lotto picks, rose to domination all the way to a first-ever title with the prospects of more to come.

She was named the rookie of the year and her new coach is former La Salle star Cheryl Reeve.

Injuries continued to be a part of the WNBA mantra with Los Angeles’ Candace Parker and Seattle’s Lauren Jackson missing most of the summer before returning near the end of the regular season.

Indiana lost starting point guard Brian January early on but the Fever made it to the East title round and sentimental favorite Tamika Catchings won her first-ever MVP title for the season.

Atlanta though had a Dream finish, living up to its nickname in gaining a second Eastern crown before being swept again.

But coach Marynell Meadors’ squad had to fight its way back from a tough start because of injuries.

The Dream’s resilience in the opening round of the playoffs came at the expense of the Connecticut Sun, whose former UConn star Tina Charles had quickly become one of the league’s top players.

The Sun finished in a tie for first with Indiana in the East but fell to a second seed due to losing the season series to the Fever.

It was also later revealed that former UConn star Sue Bird, who had been part of the defending champion Seattle Storm, was playing with hip injuries.

The Tulsa Shock couldn’t win and by early July coach Nolan Richardson was gone and replaced by Olympic and University of Georgia star Teresa Edwards.

Two days later Jennifer Gillom was out at Los Angeles and Joe Bryant moved up from assistant for a second tour of duty,

At this hour it is still unknown what the coaching situation for 2012 is at either place.

Though lack of wins couldn’t cheer Edwards at Tulsa, in late summer she enjoyed the prominence of induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer in Springfield, Mass.

Former Houston star Sheryl Swoopes came out of a two-year hiatus to play with Tulsa, which ended the Marion Jones experiment early in the season.

The summer also saw the first of three seasons with the New York Liberty relocating across the Hudson River to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. while Madison Square Garden undergoes a series of renovations.

Attendance dipped but not enough to negatively affect league numbers as a whole.

TV viewership was also up and the real star of the summer might have been on the technical side where an Apps from the league enabled many across the nation to watch games for free on their mobile phones and iPads.

There was also a mega-deal involving Boost Mobile said to be for 10 figures.

The WNBA presidency was part of the 2010 landscape when Donna Orender left at the stroke of 2011.

Several months later the league went a different route from the previous hires of basketball-backgrounded Val Ackerman and Orender by naming prominent advertising executive Laurel Richie as the new head of the league.

Though she had never been to a WNBA game, that background actually gave her a focus on which way to go to attract new fans and Richie became a quick learner.

A Film Of Our Own

After years in the making and marketing The Mighty Macs about Hall of Fame coach Cathy Rush and Immaculata's first national championship finally made it to movie houses in October and November for a successful run and will most likely find its way to DVD and online sales in 2012.

More Famers

Recalling the upset of Tennessee by Notre Dame, Irish coached Muffet McGraw exlaimed "You picked a good year to invite me to Knoxville" upon being inducted to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame along with former WNBA president Val Ackerman, former Auburn star Ruthie Bolton, former Maryland star Vickie Bullett, Pearl Moore and Lometa Odom.

McGraw is also a former St. Joseph's star and is in the Big Five Hall of Fame in Philadelphia sharing two halls with the Guru.

Locally Retrospective

Locally, here in Philadelphia, Temple extended its NCAA appearance run to eight straight and the Owls’ Tonya Cardoza was named both Big Five and Atlantic 10 coach of the year.

Temple won another Big Five title and after struggling in November and December, ripped through the A-10 before being stopped by Xavier on the final day of the regular season.

St. Joseph’s began to make a comeback and went to the WNIT with a prospect that the NCAA could be a legitimate possibly in 2012.

Tom Shirley at Philadelphia University won his 600th game on the front end of 2011 and Villanova’s Harry Perretta did likewise last month as the Wildcats are poised to win a Big Five title and perhaps do some damage in the Big East.

Rutgers struggled but returned to the NCAA and now the Scarlet Knights are in the power form of several seasons ago when they advanced to the NCAA title game and contended for it again in 2008.

Penn State, with a sensational freshman in Maggie Lucas from Narberth and Germantown Academy, returned to days of prominence and now the Lady Lions are the Big 10- favorites as conference play begins this week.

Up the road Princeton won another Ivy title and became one of the nation’s top mid-majors while Penn had its best turnaround ever and the Quakers have been even hotter on the nonconference portion of their schedule.Alyssa Baron was a star rookie at The Palestra and now her new teammate Kara Bonenberger is quickly following in her footsteps at Penn.

La Salle under first-year coach Jeff Williams surprised by making the A-10 tourney for the first time in several seasons.

Drexel made the postseason again going to the WNIT and of late the Dragons have been on a rollercoaster heading into Wednesday’s home game with South Carolina, coached by local legend Dawn Staley, who last month was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

In 2012 Staley will have big things going with an induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and maybe a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since leaving Temple.

There’s also the potential of being named a Naismith inductee.

In closing the Guru's recap that was plenty to recall from 2011 though something may have been left behind.

One thing is certain, though.

When it comes to 2012, which is also the year of the Olympics -- the USA squad is headed by UConn coach Geno Ariemma, who grew up in Norristown -- it won’t take long after the ball drops on top of Times Square in New York for notable events to begin happening in what will probably be even a more exciting year and hopefully less tragic than the one going out the door.

-- Mel


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