Even if the Oklahoma women's basketball team emerges from St. Louis as the national champion, the Sooners know they'll have extra homework. So it goes when your head coach, Sherri Coale, also happens to be a former high-school English teacher.
"We call it postgame thoughts, in which following a game they respond to what happened in the game,'' Coale said of the customary written assignment.
"We all know what just happened in the game," Coale added. "But what did you learn from the game? What do you need to do better next time? What did you struggle with? What did you see that you would do differently if you had to do it over again?''
But now's the time for pre-game analysis, and while this might rankle a former English teacher who counts Emerson, Thoreau and Chaucer among her favorite writers, we're here to provide the CliffsNotes version of what to consider before Oklahoma plays Louisville and Connecticut plays Stanford on Sunday in St. Louis at the women's Final Four.
The $64,000 question
Will Oklahoma's Courtney Paris follow through on her pledge to return her scholarship money, an estimated value of $64,000, if the Sooners fail to win the national championship? She'd be much safer guaranteeing a national title if the teams were playing football. After all, the 6-foot-4 Courtney and her 6-foot-3 twin sister Ashley are daughters of former NFL lineman Bubba Paris. On top of that, the Sooners have Carlee Roethlisberger, younger sister of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Compare and contrast
With the Connecticut Huskies two victories away from capping an undefeated season, pundits are drawing comparisons to the 2001-02 UConn team that featured future WNBA All-Stars Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Swin Cash.
"That team would beat you guys by 30, so stop thinking you're as good as them,'' Geno Auriemma, UConn's coach, recalled telling his current players earlier this season. "And they all looked at me and said, 'What are you talking about?' And I said, 'You know what I'm talking about.' They're like, 'No.' They don't know anything about that. They have not really been affected by all that.''
On second thought
Like a vacancy sign permanently lit outside a motel, Louisville's doors remain open for high-profile transfers. Angel McCoughtry, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, originally signed with St. John's. But after attending prep school for a year to improve her academics, she headed for Louisville. Similar story with Candyce Bingham, the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder, who transferred after two seasons at Xavier. Freshman Becky Burke, a key reserve, originally pledged her loyalty to South Carolina. But that was before the school had a coaching change, which prompted Burke to join the Cardinals. Oh, and don't forget Chauntise Wright, the team's starting center a year ago, who missed the 2008-09 season after tearing her ACL during the preseason. She signed with Seton Hall out of high school but, after spending a year getting her academics in order, ultimately headed to Louisville.
Centers of attention
Three of the four squads in the Final Four have centers who made the All-America team. It's no mystery as to why, according to Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. "With women's basketball, we're a young sport,'' she said. "We're growing. In some ways, we're similar to some of the maybe old-school men's teams with the great centers.''
In keeping with the old-school men's game, Oklahoma's Courtney Paris, Stanford's Jayne Appel and UConn's Tina Charles all have polished back-to-the-basket moves and create offense when teams collapse on defense in an effort to contain the centers. "So this is a big part of the women's game,'' VanDerveer said.
The NCAA plans to investigate rules violations involving … wait a minute. Wrong Huskies. It's the men's team under scrutiny for its recruitment of Nate Miles while the women's team maintains its pristine image.
"It hasn't impacted our team,'' Auriemma said, and maybe that's because he hasn't discussed it. "Not one word. I know that it affects, obviously, the people that work here and the University of Connecticut and all that because it's a topic that from the first day that it came out to now hasn't gone away. And we probably know that it won't until it's over. So our focus, with our players, is who is playing next, who we have to prepare for. And we've kind of kept it at that and not anything else.''
Louisville has reached the Final Four without a single prep All-American on its roster. Excuse the Sooners if they're less than impressed. In 2002, the Sooners had no prep All-Americans when they reached the national title game. Now Oklahoma has a chance to win it all, thanks in large part to Courtney Paris, who was the nation's consensus No. 1 prep player when she signed with the Sooners in 2005.
Getting to the point
Coale said she wouldn't trade Oklahoma point guard Danielle Robinson for any other. Maybe that's because Connecticut hasn't offered to swap its own point guard, Renee Montgomery, winner of the Nancy Lieberman Award that goes to the nation's top point guard.
"I think she's probably the best point guard in the country,'' Coale said of Montgomery. "We talk about her demeanor and ability to manage and control games. So in many ways, she's kind of been a mentor for Danielle and with her development as a sophomore. I think Renee just plays at the right speed. I think she always goes at a speed at which she can be successful – and the speed at which her team can be successful. And one of the most important traits of a point guard is to have the best game of her teammates in her eyes at all times, and I see Renee Montgomery doing that.''
After last season, Louisville head coach Jeff Walz summoned Deseree Byrd, the team's shooting guard. "Hey, we've got some work to do,'' Walz recalled saying. "We've got to drop some weight and you're going to be our starting point guard. She looked at me a little crazy and said, 'OK, if that's what we have to do.' " Byrd shed the pounds, but Walz put new weight on Byrd's shoulders when he moved her to point guard. Though shooting guard is Byrd's natural position, she has done a commendable job at the point. Even if Byrd directs Louisville to the national championship, Walz plans to move her back to shooting guard next year because he's recruited a top-flight point guard.
Will they ever win it again?
Only in Storrs, Conn., does a four-year run without a national championship constitute a drought. So it goes for a program that's won five national titles but failed to win another since the arrival of Montgomery, the team's highly touted senior point guard. "But she's not putting the pressure on anybody else on the team, and certainly no one else on the team feels any pressure for Renee,'' Auriemma said. "This is strictly a team thing that we want to do this for ourselves, not so much for one particular individual.''
Walz-ing to Final Four
In what at the time might have sounded brash, Walz told his players if they got past LSU and Baton Rouge, site of first- and second-round games, the coaches would get the Cardinals to the Final Four. Now, after Louisville knocked off LSU and advanced through the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, Walz offers no apologies.
Recalling the scene after Louisville beat LSU, Walt said: "The kids came in the locker room and we talked a little bit, and all of a sudden my point guard, Des Byrd, said, 'OK, Coach, it's your turn now.' So I knew that, OK, they were going to believe in what we were going to do and follow a game plan, but they were throwing the pressure back onto me. And that's what I wanted.''
Promoting the game
There's no need for Bill Veeck and Disco Demolition Night, as far as VanDerveer is concerned.
"It's not the gimmicks of free pizza or hot dogs and Coke or something like that,'' she said. "It's when people come to the game and they see women that are fit, women that play team basketball, that play intelligent basketball. They play with a purpose. When women play with passion, I think that that's what they want to see more than anything else. It's not necessarily the size of the players or even the strength or skill as much as putting it all out there.''
- Sherri Coale