Kansas came into the Big 12 tournament with hopes that it could somehow win a couple of games (which would mean beating top-seeded Oklahoma) and earn at at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. That didn’t occur … and it’s the best thing that could have happened to the Jayhawks.
Wednesday night, they drew 8,360 fans to Allen Fieldhouse for the semifinal of the WNIT, in which KU beat Illinois State 75-72. Danielle McCray continued a brilliant postseason with 31 points; she is averaging 30.8 and 9.0 rebounds in the Jayhawks’ four WNIT games.
The other victories were against Creighton, Arkansas and New Mexico, the latter coming in Albuquerque. If WNBA scouts do not have the junior McCray on their radar already, they really need to. I wrote a free-lance piece for The Kansas City Star on McCray before the Big 12 tournament, and she’s finishing her season at full strength.
And now the Jayhawks will face South Florida (which was also actually fortunate to be left off the NCAA’s invitation list) for the WNIT title at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
That will be well before the men’s Final Four games Saturday evening, and so the crowd at Allen Fieldhouse should be even bigger than Wednesday. And that is wonderful for these Jayhawk players.
Allen Fieldhouse is a historic place, of course, and it is packed to the gills for the Kansas men every game. Which is as it should be for a program of such magnitude and success. Jayhawk men’s basketball is like other tradition-rich sports programs: something that is passed down generation to generation with fans of lifelong allegiance.
Any man lucky enough to play basketball for Kansas experiences adulation from the community and student body that makes game days at home have a dream-like quality that ranks among the best in all of collegiate athletics.
I don’t want to suggest the men don’t appreciate this, because I think they do. But they also can’t help but take it for granted. It’s always like that. They don’t know any different.
The KU women, however, do know different. They are more used to between 1,500-2,000 fans for non-conference home games, and then they get bumps up from that, depending on the opponent, for league games. This season’s best-attended women’s game at Allen Fieldhouse before Wednesday was 7,069 for Iowa State, which was the Jayhawks’ “Pink Zone” game to raise funds for breast-cancer research.
I sometimes actually get irritated at myself for comparing men’s and women’s crowds, especially at a place like KU. They are just different sports, and the women really should never think of the men’s attendance as some kind of measuring stick they need to look at.
They should just focus on playing good basketball, and those fans that are interested will come. That’s what happened at Iowa State and Kansas State in the past decade, and it’s the case at other Big 12 schools as well.
Still, getting the 8,000-plus Wednesday and however many they will draw Saturday is still monumental to this group of players. These games will be cherished memories for these kids. It’s especially terrific to see this for the seniors, such as the delightful and inspiring Ivana Catic, whom I wrote about just before the Big 12 tournament.
People sometimes scoff at the WNIT because its not the NCAA tournament, but that’s a short-sighted view. Of course, Bonnie Henrickson and her Jayhawks want to be in the NCAA field. Kansas has not been to the NCAA tournament since 2000, and that is a long, long time in college sports.
Henrickson took over the program in 2004 after Marian Washington retired, and it’s fair to say it’s been a tougher salvage job that she anticipated. Henrickson was AD Lew Perkins’ hand-picked choice, and he’s compensated her very well. And no one who’s watched what she’s been doing doubts how hard she’s worked at it.
But she’s run into tough breaks, such as prized recruit Angel Goodrich’s ACL injury before this season, and the fact that some other signings didn’t work out as hoped. Such as Sophronia Sallard, a New Yorker who spent one unhappy year with the Jayhawks – because of stress and homesickness, not any deficiencies at KU _ before transferring back East, where she’s become a starter at Pitt.
I have also heard complaints in these parts about why KU hasn’t gotten better recruits, and I’d say that is a multi-faceted issue during the Big 12 era, which began in 1996. The small-town talent in the state of Kansas generally has not gone to KU, but rather to Kansas State. Deb Patterson and her staff had a different game plan than Washington did during the critical period – the late 1990s and early 2000s – when K-State program passed KU on the women’s hoops totem pole.
Washington had recruited larger cities and been able to get star-level players to come to KU for many years. K-State was not successful with that. Patterson recognized that building from the grass roots in the state actually was possible because there happened to be some extremely good players all born around the same time in the state of Kansas.
Under Henrickson, KU now will also go hard after in-state players if they have a chance of helping the program. I’m not saying she’ll get them over K-State or anyone else. I just know she’ll at least try.
I also think that Henrickson has had enough job security and administrative support that she’s been able to maintain her personal integrity in recruiting, and hasn’t had to lower citizenship/academic standards out of a sense of pressure to succeed quickly or else.
This can happen to coaches, even good and generally upstanding ones. It’s very hard to not fall into that trap, because it doesn’t always look like a trap or feel like one. Coaches can say, “Hey, I’m just giving this troubled kid a chance,” when in fact what it turns into is, “I’m just going to look the other way because she’s so talented.”
All that said, Henrickson fully understands the bottom line is you do have to get good players and you do have to win. Even though it’s a tough league, progress has to be made.
Which is why this WNIT success matters. Had Kansas won a few more regular-season games, the Jayhawks may have indeed made the NCAA field. And that would have been considered progress, for sure. But it actually turned out better for KU to have this WNIT experience.
We’ve seen this before. Kansas State won the WNIT title in 2006, a transition year after losing five seniors, and then also went to the WNIT in a 2007 season greatly affected by the loss of Marlies Gipson to injury. Those WNIT postseason experiences contributed to the Big 12 regular-season title the Wildcats won in 2008 and their NCAA tournament appearances the past two years.
KU will have back key elements to its lineup, including seniors-to-be McCray and Sade Morris, next season, plus Goodrich is expected to play if she’s healthy. These five WNIT games actually are doing more for KU’s future than one NCAA tournament game would have at this stage in the program.
Next year, KU will want no part of the WNIT. But this year, it was still the right tournament for the Jayhawks. The WNIT has importance in the women’s hoops landscape for this very reason.