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There are signs of hope for the women's game

Full disclosure: Nobody else whines about the dearth of drama the UConn women provide more than moi. Nobody. It's the sports fan in me. You watch games for the unwritten script. UConn's script is written the moment the team bus arrives safely.

But if nothing else, the NCAA Tournament to date, as it usually does, has offered clarity and perhaps some hope for the game.

Ironic, indeed, how in Connecticut, where we know and care more about women's basketball than any other place in the world, our view of UConn skews reality. Our reality: The game has improved only in driblets over the years, because the abyss between the rest of America and the UConn Huskies is wide as ever.

But is our reality true reality?

The 2015 tournament, despite how four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four, has felt as competitive as ever. And what a 7-seed (Dayton) and 11-seed (Gonzaga) did last week should compel athletic directors and athletic departments to further scrutinize their women's programs, asking "what might we be with the right coach?"

More disclosure: If I ever coached basketball — lifelong dream, actually — I'd aspire, if the talent allowed it, to run something that resembles what Dayton threw at UConn earlier this week in Albany. The Flyers ran "5 out" frequently, meaning all five players were out of the paint. The lane was open for dribble penetration, allowing for a drive to the basket or a pitch to the corner for an open 3-pointer. Dayton didn't dribble except to improve floor balance or get to the basket and it kept the ball out of the corners.

The ball moved quickly. Dayton coach Jim Jabir usually had four or five ballhandlers on the floor. They could all shoot. The offense was more conceptual than robotic. Nobody was running plays as much reading and reacting.

As Geno Auriemma kept saying: Jabir has been really good at recruiting basketball players and teaching basketball. Not track and field stars who can jump high and run fast. If they can do so at Dayton, why can't they do it in a million other places, too?

"Even Gonzaga, what are they an 11 (seed)?" Auriemma said. "(Upsets like that) generally don't happen a lot on the women's side. So for both Gonzaga (made the Sweet 16 and nearly beat Tennessee) and Dayton to be playing (last) weekend is really important for our game.

"In 1991 when we went on that run (to UConn's first Final Four), no team from New England had ever been there," he said. "We came out of nowhere. It opened a lot of doors for a lot of people. What's happening with Gonzaga and Dayton, a lot of schools in that situation are going to look around and go, 'hey, that could be us.' I think every coach in those conferences and coaches with those kinds of teams (should) feel really good about their chances in the future."

And this is how the game grows. There's no denying that the elite of the elite will look at Connecticut and the other Rockefellers. But really, if Dayton calls, given how fun it looked to play that system and the byplay Jabir has with his players, aren't the Flyers worth a second look?

It's already happening.

"A lot of recruits are calling us," Jabir said after Monday night's loss to UConn. "Seems to be a ton of kids wanting to transfer. There have been an inordinate number of those things. A kid we're recruiting, we called her three months ago. Never got a response. (Sunday) night, I got a phone call.

"Our society is built on perception. Everybody thinks bigger is better," Jabir said. "There's nothing we don't have. Great school, great education, great arena. There's nothing they do that we don't do. You have to convince certain kids of that."

The problem, of course, is that UConn makes these schools look as though they last practiced on Thanksgiving. It's UConn's deadly combination of being able to recruit many of the best players and doing the most with them. But UConn aside, the rest of the country should be watching Dayton. They should watch how Muffet McGraw runs offense at Notre Dame. How Geno runs offense at UConn. It's what basketball should be. It's just not nearly seen with enough frequency in the women's game.

Maybe it would be if recruiting philosophies changed. It's not just in men's basketball where athleticism appears to trump skill too often. Maybe it's time to examine how Player A became a McDonald's All-American. Because he or she can run fast and jump high or because he or she has discernible basketball skills? Maybe it's time women's coaches realized if more teams played like Gonzaga and Dayton, the game wouldn't get better incrementally. It would get better faster than Mo Jefferson gets foul line to foul line.

"We need to recruit better," Jabir said. "I don't want this to be the last time we do this. We should aspire to be in the Elite 8. We should work hard to recruit the kind of kids that keep us here."

And so should everyone else.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro. Twitter: @BCgenius

 

 

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