Women's basketball is on the rise. And as anyone who has watched the women's side of the current NCAA tournament knows, the reason is some very good playing.
More and more young women have practiced hoops since childhood. Expanded youth and school programs let them develop as athletes. In college, increased emphasis on women's athletics sustains that development.
But in women's collegiate basketball, a lot of coaches have a somewhat surprising way of getting the most from their players. They recruit male practice squads to play against the women.
Typically, these squads are made up of men's varsity wannabes who didn't quite make the grade. Yet they're fiercely competitive guys who love the game and jump at the chance to have even a secondary role in one of their school's athletic programs.
Top coaches, such as Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, just named the coach of the year in women's basketball, swear by the practice of using men to sharpen their teams. Others worry that women players who aren't starters, yet are good enough to make the team and have athletic scholarships, may not be getting the practice time they need when the men take the floor.
That's a legitimate concern. The whole point of women's programs is to give women an opportunity to play and compete.
But if a few men can help women stars reach even higher levels of play, women's basketball may be the long- term winner. Down the line, an increase in the number of top women players may send male sparring partners back to their pick-up games.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor