What can I say? For the most part, it was a lousy week.
It started with another non-competitive UConn-Notre Dame game on national TV, as if one of them hadn’t been enough. The Irish were unable to get any more traction against the Huskies in South Bend than they had in Storrs. At one point, the Notre Dame guards’ shooting percentage almost seemed to me that it had dropped into a negative number. Like they had already missed shots they hadn’t even taken yet.
Even so, it was still fun to write about because Geno Auriemma and his players are so entertaining to talk to. They have interesting things to say even if nothing all that interesting happens in the game. In this particular contest, something of historical interest happened, with Tina Charles becoming the program’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. But other than that, the game mostly just featured ruthless UConn efficiency.
Which distinguishes it from other UConn games … how? They’ve all been that way, and that is really amazing. Some UConn fans can find flaws or slippages in various performance, and I admit they’re watching for that stuff … but I don’t really see it. The Huskies look pretty airtight to me, unless there’s some strange injury or foul situation.
During the UConn-Notre Dame, Missouri sent out the release that coach Cindy Stein was stepping down, although she would finish out the rest of the season. Tuesday, Stein had a press conference in Columbia in which she said that inquiries about her job status before her team’s game against Nebraska a couple of days earlier had been kind of the last straw.
“It takes your focus away,” she said. “It just got to a point where I don’t want to be a distraction.”
I really don’t want to be crass when someone is having to leave a job, but … I read that and thought, “She’s kidding, right? Um, what does she think she’s distracting the Tigers from? The laser-like precision with which they had won a grand total of one Big 12 game?”
I mean, it just sounded pretty goofy. Mizzou’s season had been dead in the water for weeks on end before Stein’s resignation. Her contract was up at the conclusion of the season; everyone knew it wasn’t going to be renewed. (And this didn’t have anything to do with December’s absurd cheerleader scuffle; that was just an utterly unnecessary scene in what was the closing act for Stein anyway.)
If the reality is, Stein wanted to have sort of a “farewell” two weeks, that’s fine. I don’t blame her. Might as well put your own spin on your exit if you can.
“I don’t think anyone would dream we would have only one conference win at this point with the group we had returning,” Stein said.
Again … really? Considering the Tigers had been 11-37 in Big 12 play the previous three seasons, picturing them only getting one victory really just didn’t stretch my imagination. The Tigers have been pretty much expert at barely losing in the last minute against good teams and getting blow out by teams that really aren’t any better than them. It’s not so unusual for that combination to add up to one win.
However, by week’s end, that number would be two … although we’ve got a little more to review before then.
Wednesday, all hell broke loose in Lubbock, with the Brittney Griner-Jordan Barncastle incident. I don’t think I have to explain all that again. I will say it’s when the week really began nose-diving for me.
As a columnist, which I am for ESPN.com, your offer your opinion on things, and you just need to accept that not everybody is going to agree with it. Which is easier said than done. Especially with an issue that seemed to arouse as many emotions as this did.
My friend and broadcaster Brenda VanLengen and I talked about this during the week _ how the whole thing was upsetting for a variety of reasons.
I empathize very much with what Griner has had to face at her height and being a target. I’m sure she’s heard some really mean things. I know that for freshman post players, especially, learning to keep your head when dealing with a lot of contact can be a taxing thing.
But, you know, players do it. They have to.
Most of the players I’ve since spoken to off the record about the incident said the contact between Barncastle and Griner that preceded the punch was “stuff that sometimes happens” during the course of a game, and that you keep your cool and let the officials dole out the penalty.
Maybe there are other players who would feel differently, of course. But everyone knows that punching isn’t going to go unpunished.
So was a two-game suspension enough? I’ve heard lots of very strong opinions on both sides. And it occurred to me that these are the situations where it seems kind of a losing proposition to write columns about them. Because everybody who watched the video clip formed their own judgment.
Friday, there was basketball on TV pretty much morning to night with the various conference tournaments going on. But it was hard for the Griner situation to not overshadow a lot of that.
Saturday at Kansas, Texas A&M beat the Jayhawks, an important win that ended up helping the Aggies earn the No. 4 seed in the Big 12 tournament. But the plain truth was, it was a sad evening in Lawrence. It was senior night, and a group of players who many expected would be a breakthrough class just never quite broke all the way through.
The Jayhawks were already struggling a bit in early February, when Big 12 preseason player of the year Danielle McCray went down with an ACL injury. After that, KU had some brutally tough close losses. And while the 78-54 defeat against the Aggies wasn’t one of those, it was a game where even opposing coach Gary Blair pointed out how rough it was for the Jayhawks.
They’d lost McCray and point guard Angel Goodrich to knee injuries. And in this game, they were also without freshman Carolyn Davis, a rising young potential star, because she’d suffered a concussion.
Coach Bonnie Henrickson looked and sounded really gloomy afterward, just because she was so upset for the seniors. They will not experience going to the NCAA tournament in their careers unless the Jayhawks can pull of some astonishing miracle and win the Big 12 tournament and automatic bid.
“I say to myself, ‘Why did this happen to them?’ ” Henrickson said. “It wasn’t supposed to go like this. It’s just difficult to accept when you have kids who worked hard and did everything right the way Danielle and Sade (Morris) did. You thought they deserved better.”
Sunday … well, there were the near-misses by the underdogs in the ACC (Duke beat N.C. State), Big Ten (Ohio State beat Iowa) and SEC (Tennessee beat Kentucky) tournament finals. Rutgers had another Big East tournament double-overtime game and won this one, upsetting Georgetown. (The Scarlet Knights lost in double OT last year to Louisville.) UConn squeezed the Orange.
Oklahoma clobbered rival Oklahoma State in Bedlam Part II. Griner sat in the stands as Baylor fell to Texas. And in Stein’s last game at home, Missouri finally picked up that second Big 12 victory this seasion, hurting Texas Tech’s NCAA tournament chances with a 58-55 overtime victory.
Barncastle averages just 5.8 points, but still … having her out with the broken nose and all the controversy surrounding the incident probably shook Tech’s focus. Missouri, meanwhile, played like it had nothing to lose – because it didn’t.
So while it might have been a last bitterweet triumph at Mizzou Arena for Stein, it wasn’t necessarily a good thing for the league because of what it may have done to Texas Tech’s NCAA hopes. Now, the Raiders really need to make a surge in the Big 12 tournament.
Anyway, it was a long week with too much unpleasantness. Now that’s it’s Big 12 tourney week here in KC, I hope things perk up
MY VOTE: 1. Connecticut, 2. Stanford, 3. Nebraska, 4. Tennessee, 5. Xavier, 6. Duke, 7. Notre Dame, 8. Oklahoma, 9. West Virginia, 10. Ohio State, 11. Iowa State, 12. Texas A&M, 13. Florida State, 14. Texas, 15. Kentucky, 16. Baylor, 17. Georgetown, 18. Gonzaga, 19. Hartford, 20. St. John’s, 21. Fresno State, 22. UCLA, 23. LSU, 24. Oklahoma State, 25. Iowa