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Dave Reardon: High quality of play and teamwork make me a fan again

Apr. 7—Right now, though, I love the women's game. But—as it is with everything else for me in sports—that will only continue if the excellence is maintained.

Several decades ago, I liked the way college women's basketball was played and coached at its highest level. Although the players weren't as athletic as their male counterparts, in my opinion the women were just as competitive, but they generally played with more teamwork. A lot of men cared more about their individual stats and flashy one-on-one moves than winning and losing.

I didn't care a lot about dunks, or the lack thereof. Still don't.

Then the women's game became more individualistic, more like the men's game—but without the corresponding level of athleticism. For a while, it was the worst of both worlds. With a few exceptions, the women's game had become sloppy below the rim and remained close to non-existent above it.

Right now, though, I love the women's game. But—as it is with everything else for me in sports—that will only continue if the excellence is maintained. So far, so good, as this year's women's tournament has lived up to considerable hype heading into today's championship game between South Carolina and Iowa.

It helps if there's a great storyline, too, like there was in the Elite Eight ... defending champion LSU and Angel Reese vs. the 2023 runner-up Iowa and Caitlin Clark. One of today's angles is which gives you a bigger advantage—the game's greatest coach (the Gamecocks' Dawn Staley ), or its greatest player (Clark )? Oddsmakers say it's the coach, by 6.5 points. Of course, star center Kamilla Cardoso and the rest of South Carolina's undefeated crew is part of that equation, too.

Some longtime, consistent fans say the quality of play and the compelling stories have been there a long time waiting, and people like me are coming to the party only now because of a lack of awareness caused by insufficient media exposure.

Maybe that is true, for some. But I was at the party early, as described above. I left when the product declined ; now it's good, so now I'm back. I'll stay if this slew of stars led by Clark—whose pinpoint passes are as impressive as her logo bombs—is not just a fluke.

And there's another condition to keep my attention : more Cinderella teams, more buzzer beaters and bracket busters in March Madness.

The competitive balance in women's basketball is improving, but there's still a chasm between the haves and the have-somes. It's still too predictable in the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament when the higher seeds nearly always win, and by plenty.

The men's tournament still leads in early-round drama, where at least one or two underdogs knock off brand-name programs in the first week's games. Sometimes they make it even further, like NC State this year. The Wolfpack got hot and won five games in five days to win the ACC Tournament. That gave them momentum to win four more in the dance en route to the Final Four, before finally falling to Purdue in Saturday's semifinal.

The NC State women were a much milder surprise making it to their Final Four, and then South Carolina took care of them with ease in their Friday semi.

Recent results do indicate an improvement in quality depth at the very top of college women's basketball. Five different schools have won the last five national championships. LSU, South Carolina, Stanford, Baylor and Notre Dame have taken turns winning the title since 2018 (there was no tourney in 2020 due to the pandemic ).

Iowa could keep the variety going with a win tonight. If South Carolina fends off Clark and the rest of the Hawkeyes, it will be the Gamecocks' third championship in the last eight. Before South Carolina's 2017 win, UConn had four in a row, six out of eight, and 11 of 17 from 2000 to 2016.

As fans of Hawaii high school football know, annual dominance by one team gets boring—unless, of course, it happens to be your alma mater.