When Texas A&M toppled tradition-rich Baylor, Stanford and Notre Dame to capture the national championship last year, the Aggies' unexpected run was hailed as a breakthrough for parity in women's basketball.
Twelve months later, Texas A&M's success seems more aberration than trend.
No. 1 seeds Baylor, Stanford, UConn and Notre Dame each advanced to next week's Final Four without having a single opponent come within 11 points of beating them in any NCAA tournament game. The average margin of victory for the four No. 1 seeds in their 16 NCAA tournament victories was an astounding 23.9 points.
What best sums up the dominance of those four programs this season is how well they each fared when they weren't playing each other. Baylor is undefeated this season, Stanford's lone loss was at UConn, and the Huskies and Irish both lost only one game to a team that isn't Final Four bound, falling to St. John's and West Virginia respectively in Big East play.
If women's hoops deserves credit for progressing from the late '90s and early 2000s when UConn and Tennessee were the only two nationally relevant programs, then the sport also has to admit that true parity is still a long ways off.
Along with Tennessee, Baylor, Stanford, UConn and Notre Dame are part of the oligarchy that has dominated women's basketball in recent years. Since 2000, those five schools have combined to ring up 10 national championships and 27 Final Fours, with UConn and Stanford making their fifth consecutive Final Four appearances this year.
The downside to such a gap between the sport's ruling class and the second tier is that it diminishes the appeal of the regular season and the early rounds of the tournament to the casual fan. The upside is a star-studded, juggernaut-heavy Final Four that promises three very intriguing matchups.
The undercard on Sunday is a fourth matchup between Big East regular-season champion Notre Dame and Big East tournament champion UConn, two programs who have waged three very competitive games already this season. Point guard Skylar Diggins led the Irish to a pair of regular-season wins over the Huskies, but UConn reasserted itself in the Big East title game earlier this month, beating Notre Dame 63-54 behind Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis' 19 points and Bria Hartley's 18.
Even more intriguing than that matchup, however, is the first meeting of the Brittney Griner era between Baylor and Stanford. Griner's dominance in the paint has propelled Baylor to an undefeated season and a No. 1 ranking at this point, but she has yet to face a frontline as talented as Stanford's Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike.
Regardless of who wins either of those semifinals, Tuesday's championship game will be a showdown worth watching. Thus for another year, the women's NCAA tournament will have to hope that what it lacks in parity or surprises, it can make up for in star power.
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