Regional finals in college basketball are regularly the most emotional games of the NCAA Tournament. The Iowa Hawkeyes and Baylor Bears will immerse themselves in this cauldron on Monday night in Greensboro, North Carolina, but even by Elite Eight standards, this game will pack an extra emotional wallop.
College sports do involve multiple-game series. See women’s softball or the baseball super regionals. However, at the revenue-sport level, the NCAA Tournament and the College Football Playoff are merciless in their single-game finality. One bounce of the ball, one blown call, can drastically change how a season ends… or continues. One brief moment takes a season-long pursuit of immortality (or at least a transformative breakthrough) and leaves its aspirations shattered on the floor, unable to be picked up.
Some great, great basketball coaches never made the Final Four. In the men’s game, John Chaney of Temple and Gene Keady of Purdue stand out as foremost examples. In women’s basketball, Holly Warlick turned in several fine seasons at Tennessee after replacing Pat Summitt. She might not be regarded as a great coach (many would merely say “very good”), but she stood on the doorstep of the Final Four multiple times in the Elite Eight and could not bust through the portal. She went 0-3 in that round. She never made the promised land as a head coach. Maybe at her next job, things might be different, but not at Tennessee.
Another story in women’s basketball this century reminds us that even among iconic coaches who have made multiple Final Fours, long droughts can and do exist.
I think of Tara VanDerveer, the Stanford legend, in this case. VanDerveer was roaring along at Stanford in the mid-to-late 1990s, having made the Final Four in 1997. That was her fifth Final Four in 12 seasons at Stanford, and her fifth Final Four in a 10-season span. (Her first two years at Stanford were spent building a program.) It seemed Stanford was going to keep chugging along at the Final Four with Pat (Tennessee) and Geno Auriemma (Connecticut).
Yet, just as abruptly, the music stopped.
Stanford’s 1998 season was destroyed by injuries. The Cardinal became the first team to lose a 16-over-1 upset — to Harvard — in NCAA Tournament history, beating UMBC over Virginia by 20 years. Stanford struggled for a few seasons, then regrouped to make three straight Elite Eights… but could not take the next step to the Final Four. 10 seasons, no Final Fours. At Stanford, that was a crisis and an incomprehensible shock.
It happened to one of the best coaches this sport has ever known.
VanDerveer’s 2008 team carried her across the finish line and back to the Final Four. That 2008 team seemed to break a collective spell which had shrouded the Cardinal program. The 2008 Cardinal didn’t play 10 seasons of college basketball, but it was as though that team lifted a burden throughout the campus. Stanford made five consecutive Final Fours through the 2012 season. VanDerveer has made seven Final Fours the past 11 seasons, and will try to get an eighth in a 12-season span in the Chicago Regional.
Great coaches can fall short for many years.
Quality coaches such as Holly Warlick can fail to make the Final Four.
This are uncomfortable and inconvenient realities, but they are part of the landscape of the single-elimination world of college sports, especially the NCAA Tournament.
This leads us to the Greensboro Regional final between Iowa and Baylor on Monday.
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder is the quality coach who has not yet been able to taste the Final Four. She took over at Iowa in the year 2000 and has made the Hawkeyes an annual NCAA Tournament team. Bluder has 747 career wins and a previous Sweet 16 to her credit. Only now has she finally made the Elite Eight, which is also Iowa’s first Elite Eight since 1993.
Only now will Bluder coach a game which could catapult her to the Final Four, two weeks before her 58th birthday. No one knows if she will get another chance as good as this one, largely because no one knows if she will get another player nearly as good as Megan Gustafson.
Connecticut, Louisville, and Mississippi State are familiar faces at the Final Four. They will desperately want to win the Elite Eight games they are playing this weekend, but Iowa’s quest contains an extra dimension of poignancy because of the rare nature of the opportunity the Hawkeyes and Bluder are trying to capture. Regional finals are matter-of-fact occurrences for Geno and Jeff Walz and Vic Schaefer, but for Bluder? This is a very rare moment of truth.
Kim Mulkey of Baylor sits in the shoes VanDerveer wore in the 2008 Spokane Regional final for Stanford against Brenda Frese and Maryland. Candice Wiggins outplayed Kristi Toliver to lift VanDerveer back to college basketball’s Holy Grail. Monday, Baylor’s roster will need to show that it can be greater than Megan Gustafson. If it can, Mulkey’s surprising Final Four drought will end at seven years.
Much as VanDerveer went 10 full seasons without a Final Four, Mulkey has gone six full seasons without a Final Four and hopes that streak will end on Monday night.
What is amazing about Mulkey’s Final Four drought is that in the past seven Big 12 regular seasons — including this 2019 edition — Baylor has lost a total of six Big 12 games. Baylor has won at least 32 games in each of the last six seasons. The Lady Bears have carried just one loss into four of the past seven NCAA Tournaments, including this one. They made four straight Elite Eights…
… and yet, from all that achievement and all that winning and all that dominance, they haven’t made one Final Four.
To be more precise, the surprising aspect of Baylor since the 40-0 national championship team under Brittney Griner in 2012 isn’t the fact that Baylor hasn’t made a Final Four in and of itself; the jawdropping reality surrounding this team is that Baylor has so consistently hit 33, 34, 35 wins per season, only to not win the one game all coaches desperately want to win.
If Baylor had been producing a 28-7 season here or a 26-9 season there, the parade of non-Final Four seasons wouldn’t stand out as much. The fact that Baylor is so often carrying mid-30s win totals into Elite Eight games and not taking the last step is the head-scratcher.
Either Lisa Bluder, after more than a quarter century of coaching Division I basketball (going back to an earlier stint at Drake), will make her first Final Four and give Iowa its first Final Four in 26 years, or Kim Mulkey will put an end to a puzzling drought akin to Tara VanDerveer’s mystifying dry spell from 1998 through 2007 at Stanford.
All the Elite Eight games in the Women’s NCAA Tournament are extremely compelling, but none will be more profoundly emotional than Iowa-Baylor in Greensboro.
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