Something Different: No Clear Favorite as the 2016-17 WBB Season Opens
The day and night has arrived for the launch of the NCAA 2016-17 women’s basketball – men, too – season and at least in the early going everyone is in play from the best to the next and lower levels in the hunt for spots in the Women’s Final Four which returns to the state of Texas in Dallas March 31-April 2.
In many ways it’s a season of poignancy, especially for those who date back to the early days of the modern era with this being the first without the existing presence of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose nearly five-year battle against Alzheimer’s Disease ended with her passing last June.
The Hall of Famer stepped down after the 2011-12 season but her spirit down shines down on her Knoxville faithful and the rest of women’s basketball from above.
It’s a season to be considered semi wide-open for the rest time in over a decade in terms of a favorite with at least 10 teams in the hunt to land in the Heart of Dixie though that group has had success in the past in terms of teams winning titles or making long runs through March Madness.
Still, beyond that group others can be filled with hope in light of three dark horse contenders reaching Indianapolis last spring with the Women’s Final Four debuts of Syracuse out of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Pac-12 duo of Washington and Oregon State.
Of course the stars of that show and the three previous ones were Breanna Stewart and her Connecticut teammates but with Stewie’s graduation, landing rookie of the year status in the WNBA, and that of senior teammates Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, the Huskies’ latest long run over the rest of Division I could be over though the cupboard isn’t exactly bare.
“Yeah, we expect to be in the conversation at the end,” said UConn Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma during American Athletic Conference media day, acknowledging this run even if resulting in another title success won’t be one of total or near perfection.
And even if the unprecedented string of four straight crowns comes to an end, it may not stay that way for long, considering Wednesday’s national signing days announcements in which UConn attracted Chesterfield, Virginia’s Megan Walker considered a national No. 1 prospect, and three other prime blue chip stars in Mikayla Coombs out of Buford, Georgia; Alexis, Gordon, out of Fort Worth, Texas; and Andra Espinoza-Hunter out of Ossing, New York.
Connecticut is the only team remaining that has been in the Top 5 and thus Top 10 of the Associated Press women’s basketball poll, celebrating its 41st year, in every week of the current decade, a span of 128 overall.
For the moment though, the top of the group belongs to Notre Dame, whose coach Muffet McGraw could make Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame status in Springfield, Mass., after being bypassed as a finalist last April.
But right on the heels of the Irish are Baylor, Dawn Staley’s South Carolina squad, and Louisville at the outset, with Texas, Maryland, Ohio State, and Mississippi State also part of the preseason Top 10.
Connecticut will be tested hard right from the get-go visiting Florida State Monday night and then hosting No. 2 Baylor in Thursday’s home opener. Two other key national games on Monday night has Texas visiting Stanford while South Carolina visits Texas.
There are new faces on the sidelines, highlighted by former WNBA Indiana Fever coach Stephanie White taking over at Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference.
Former UConn star Jen Rizzotti has left the Nutmeg State, moving from Hartford to George Washington, replacing Jonathan Tsipis, who is now at Wisconsin.
Two PhilahoopsW squads (the Guru’s local group of 12 schools) will battle the Colonials in the early going with Princeton visiting the Smith Center in Washington Sunday and GWU then coming to Villanova a week from Sunday.
King of Prussia’s Megan Griffith makes her head coaching debut at her alma mater Columbia after serving on the staff of Courtney Banghart at Princeton. Former Delaware star and assistant Tiara Malcom makes her debut at Florida International.
Longtime Dayton coach Jim Jabir stepped down for personal reasons at Dayton and was replaced by Shauna Green. There’s a change in the view of the sidelines at James Madison were former assistant Sean O’Regan replacing the successful Kenny Brooks, who moved down the road to Virginia Tech.
Heather Vulin, a past Villanova aide, takes over at Manhattan, while Shannon Schweyen replaces longtime Montana coach Robin Selvig. Over at Nebraska Amy Williams has replaced Connie Yori while Mike Bradbury has succeeded Yvonne Sanchez at New Mexico.
Saint Bonaventure's Jim Crowley is now at Providence replacing former Penn State star Susan Robinson Fruchtl whose is now part of the high command at Saint Francis, Pa., where she previously coached. Crowley was replaced Jessie Fleming to head the Bonnies, while Travis Mays, a former Texas assistant, is now at SMU, succeeding veteran Rhonda Rompola.
Kim Rosamund has replaced the retired Jim Davis at Tennessee Tech, while Joan Bonvicini at Seattle was succeeded by Suzy Balcomb.
Former Penn assistant Chris Day is now making his head coaching debut at Vermont and has recently graduated Villanova star Caroline Coyer on his staff.
Locally, it’s a loaded schedule Friday night to get things under way. Rutgers will host Jim Foster’s Chattanooga squad at 2 p.m. It’s one of several trips the Southern Conference power is making up this way with a stop at Connecticut and in the Naismith Hall of Fame tourney in Springfield, Mass., at the end of this month.
The reason for the daylight action is the women are on a doubleheader with the Scarlet Knights men as part of the Rutgers 250 celebration.
A Big Five marquee event occurs Friday night at 7 p.m. when Temple travels across town to play Saint Joseph’s, a squad that has short-circuited the Owls in recent City Series tilts.
The Hawks will then return to their home Sunday to host Patriot favorite Bucknell at 2 p.m., while Temple plays a second straight Big Five game, hosting La Salle at 5 p.m. Monday in McGonigle Hall.
At the same time Penn State, a former perennial visitor in the Lady Lions’ Atlantic 10 days, visits Drexel at the Daskalakis Athletic Center. The Dragons come right back hosting Delaware State Sunday at 2 p.m.
Over at La Salle, the Explorers Friday night at 7 host Lafayette at 7 p.m. The Leopards are looking to be vastly improved under Theresa Grentz, the Hall of Famer and former Immaculata great, who came out of retirement last season following three successful runs at Saint Joseph’s, Rutgers and Illinois.
Penn, now the Ivy favorite after winning its second title in three seasons last March, on Sunday visits Duke, which helped the Quakers open play a year ago, visiting The Palestra. The Blue Devils did not make the preseason poll for the first time in two decades and Penn, which almost rallied to an upset last time, has a shot at Cameron Indoor Arena.
Villanova, which is loaded with talent, gets a test Friday night at the outset, playing 10th-ranked Mississippi State in Maine’s tourney, which also has Purdue.
Princeton, which is not the Ivy favorite for the first time in quite a while, engages in a neighborhood war, hosting Rider, Friday night at 7 in Jadwin Gym before visiting George Washington on Sunday. The Tigers are still talented but in a rebuilding mode.
Villanova, finishing the Maine tourney against the host or Purdue, is the only local playing on Saturday, while on Sunday, Delaware opens its season in the Bob Carpenter Center hosting George Mason at 2 p.m.