Women Bring More Madness to Game

The feminine side of college basketball has definitely arrived

Madness. It's the March mantra for partisan collegians, unrelenting alumni, and others who can't have enough slam-dunks. Now the pundits of collegiate sports say March might get even madder.

The reason: The upsurge of interest in women's basketball. Commentators say it's unlikely that female players will elbow the men off their pedestal. Instead - in an America seeking gender equity - women are likely to carve their own niche.

Title IX, talent, and television have mapped the journey of women's basketball from yawning obscurity to televised visibility, says Dan Wetzel, associate editor of Basketball Times. "Women athletes were treated like second-class citizens. But [Title IX] brought a lot of change in societal views."

Title IX is the landmark 1972 federal legislation that required equal treatment for college women. Until its passage, women's basketball languished in the backwoods, kept alive by teams such as Immaculata College, near Philadelphia, which won several national titles.

The impact of Title IX was felt nationwide in 1982 when the NCAA held its first women's basketball tournament. The sport took off from there, and met with support as well as cynicism. "They don't dunk." "There's not enough talent or competition." And others asked, "Where are the crowds?"

ESPN broadcaster and former player Robin Roberts observes that "to compare women's basketball to men's basketball is an injustice to both. "The women's game is more of a team concept. It's not about slam-dunking. It's about creating and moving" on the court.

A recent USA Today survey found that while more than half the undergraduates at Division I schools are women, almost two-thirds of athletes are men. At almost three-quarters of the schools, women get only 38 percent of scholarship money, 27 percent of recruiting money, and 25 percent of operating budgets.

Despite such disparity, the last three seasons put women's basketball on a firmer ground. In 1993, when fewer teams were playing, the tournament was staged at the Omni in Atlanta, an arena not affiliated with any college. This was intended to counter criticism that the tournament format unfairly gave teams with larger followings the home court advantage. Today, in the early rounds teams such as University of Connecticut and Tennessee still get home court advantage. Given the choice between 5,000 fans and 500 fans, Wetzel says, tournament organizers will go for the 5,000.

In another bold step the NCAA duplicated the men's format of 64. More teams had a chance to participate, even though some were embarrassed by 60-point losses.

In the last two seasons, UConn's Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti were named the nation's outstanding woman college athlete, giving basketball a face, Wetzel says. "If a kid is not able to dream about somebody, then they don't emulate [the sport]." It's the Mary Lou Retton effect.

But perhaps the most gigantic leap came two years ago when major media outlets made strong commitments to the sport, especially ESPN. Today ESPN cameras concentrate on the court - where the action is - and not on any empty seats.

This year the tournament got unpredictable. No. 14 Texas Tech, which had the nation's second-longest home-court winning streak, lost on its own floor to unranked Oklahoma State by 22 points.

While, Tennessee and Stanford are going back to the women's Final Four, No.1 Connecticut isn't. Old Dominion is going for the first time since winning the 1985 national title. Notre Dame is going for the first time ever.

"Now I know why everyone in sports calls this March Madness," wrote Connecticut center Kara Wolters.

* Today's semifinals: Old Dominion vs. Stanford, 7 p.m.; Notre Dame vs. Tennessee, 9 p.m. (EST).

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