I don’t want this to sound wrong, but the truth is I sometimes have a hard time finding my stories on ESPN.com during the NCAA tournament. There’s just a lot going on. So I’m going to re-post what I wrote for the Web site here. It’s not new content if you’ve already seen it on ESPN.com. It’s just to put it all in one place each day. Here are stories on the troubles at Texas, Nebraska’s opening round win, and UCLA vs. N.C. State.
*****TROUBLES AT TEXAS*****
In the wake of Texas’ NCAA first-round upset loss — on its home court in Austin — to San Diego State on Sunday, let’s take a look back at three years ago.
In 2007, Duke lost a very painful game to Rutgers in the NCAA Sweet 16. Lindsey Harding at the foul line … well, we probably don’t need to rehash the gory details.
After that game, Blue Devils coach Gail Goestenkors began in earnest the process of deciding whether to take Texas’ big-bucks offer to replace Jody Conradt.
There were pros and cons. The good reasons Goestenkors had to move to Texas were numerous, and we’re not just talking about the $1 million salary. The high school girls’ hoops talent pool in the Lone Star State is deep … although to navigate it, you have to be able to swim with sharks. (And by that do I mean recruiting in Texas is not exactly for the faint of heart? That’s exactly what I mean.)
The Texas athletic department and its other coaches really seemed to “want” Goestenkors, while Duke’s athletic department sent, at best, mixed messages about how much it wanted her to stay.
Plus, Goestenkors had been through a lot of “close but not quite” at Duke, making four trips to the Final Four without winning a title. She felt she was carrying some ghosts with her every postseason, and thought a fresh start in a new conference might be exactly what she needed at that point in her career.
The reasons against going to Texas? Goestenkors had built Duke into the power it was, and she was synonymous with the Blue Devils’ women’s program after 15 years. And the type of person/coach she is — high standards, highly motivated, overachieving — fit perfectly with the typical Duke student-athlete.
And by leaving Duke — where she knew the good and the bad so well — she was taking a risk going to a situation she really didn’t know nearly as well.
Furthermore, this whole deal is still rare in women’s basketball coaching: A school with money identifying the best coach it thinks could possibly be persuaded to come, and then tossing all the cash needed to make that person an offer she or he couldn’t refuse.
Texas thought it was buying instant success, because frankly, that’s how the thinking usually goes in Austin. If you write a big enough check, you always get what you want when you want it. That’s not meant as an insult; just an observation of how business is done there.
Problem is, “buying” success in athletics — pro or college — is hardly the quid pro quo certainty that high-dollar schools or organizations want it to be.
Even if you spend a lot of money, that doesn’t mean you’ve just purchased a magic wand. And in a highly competitive Big 12 conference, Texas has had to face this fact in far more than just women’s basketball.
But since this was such a high-profile hire, there was instantly — and understandably — a lot of pressure on Goestenkors from Day 1. In her first season, the Horns went 22-13 overall, 7-9 in the Big 12 and lost in the NCAA tournament’s second round to UConn.
Last year, they were 21-12, 8-8 and lost in the NCAA’s first round to Mississippi State. This year, 22-10, 10-6 — and now the first-round loss to the Aztecs. How will Texas’ athletic brass react to this? Will they urge Goestenkors to make staff changes? How much more might they get involved in the day-to-day of what she does?
Now, if you’re a coach at most programs and you make the NCAA tournament in your first three seasons on the job and improve your conference record each of those years, you’re probably not worrying about your administration at all. But if you’re at Texas, which expects a lot more, you do have worries.
Does anyone really think Goestenkors is somehow not as good a coach anymore? I don’t think that for a minute. But I do think that Texas paid big money for something that perhaps no one could have given the school as quickly as it wanted it, which was instantly.
Look at the program that won the Big 12 this year: Nebraska. This was coach Connie Yori’s eighth season in Lincoln, and during her stay there, the Huskers have made the NCAA field three times. Is her salary the same as Goestenkors’ is? Nope. Does Texas have a bigger recruiting base? Sure. But the Huskers’ situation still illustrates how long it can take and how many things have to go right to be really successful, no matter what you’re being paid for it.
***HUSKERS A ‘THROWBACK’… TO 2004
MINNEAPOLIS — Cory Montgomery is from Minnesota, and she does recall the excitement over Lindsay Whalen and the Go-Go Gophers of 2004. But not nearly as well as her Nebraska teammate and basketball junkie Kelsey Griffin does.
“I remember watching that team and thinking, ‘I want to go play for Minnesota!'” said Griffin, who — being from Alaska — is part of the small percentage of the United States population that would not find Minneapolis especially cold.
Griffin ended up south of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, at Nebraska, but she did get a chance to play Sunday in the home of the Gophers, Williams Arena. She and the top-seeded Huskers made sure No. 16 seed Northern Iowa didn’t get any big ideas from its men’s team’s victory over No. 1 Kansas or from the upsets from the women’s side, either.
Nebraska won 83-44 behind Griffin’s 22 points and 9 rebounds, and you might say that the Huskers this whole season are bringing back memories of the 2004 Gophers.
“You could just tell the chemistry they had on the court, the love for the game and for each other they had,” Griffin said of watching Minnesota on television back then when she was a 16-year-old. “The passion behind it was so fun and contagious.
“To be mentioned as similar to a team like that is flattering. Because I feel like we have that chemistry and that excitement. I’m glad if that’s being seen by others.”
Nebraska coach Connie Yori said she didn’t sleep especially well Saturday night, worrying about the Panthers, who had pulled a couple of upsets in the Missouri Valley tourney to get their automatic bid. One upset came against Yori’s alma mater, Creighton, where she coached for 10 seasons before coming to Nebraska.
UNI beat Creighton in the MVC final, and Nebraska had defeated Creighton in December by just 13 points. So maybe Yori — whose Huskers lost their first game of the season in the Big 12 tourney semifinals to Texas A&M — had good reason to toss and turn before facing the Panthers.
But the way the Huskers played in their NCAA opener should have ensured that Yori slept pretty well Sunday night before preparing to face UCLA in the second round. Dominique Kelley had 11 points and Lindsey Moore 10; the Huskers made 10 of 20 3-point shots and 20 assists to 11 turnovers.
And for Griffin, it was especially neat to play in the gym they call “The Barn,” with its raised floor and intimate atmosphere despite having a capacity of more than 14,600. First opened in 1927 — it has been renovated and updated a few times since — Williams is a quirky arena with nooks and crannies and its own unique character.
“I love the old places, the historic gyms,” Griffin said. “Places that you see or hear about growing up, and you never really think that you’ll play there.”
So Williams fit Griffin, and Griffin fit Williams. In fact, the Huskers as a team fit here because they would be appreciated by Minnesotans as being much like that 2004 Gophers team.
Led by stars Whalen and Janel McCarville and a group of role players who all did exactly what was needed, those Gophers captivated the state — much as the Huskers are doing in their state now — on their run to the Final Four.
One way, though, they are not alike is seeding. The Gophers were a No. 7 seed in 2004, not because the team really was deserving of that seed, but because the NCAA committee was in a bind over what to do with them. With Whalen, they probably were a No. 2, and no lower than a No. 3. But she suffered a wrist injury in February, and at the time it was feared it had ended her college career.
But — like a certain 2010 Huskers standout — she was tough as nails. And she healed faster than expected. The committee seeded the Gophers as if they were without Whalen, but she was back for the NCAA opener, meaning the No. 1 (Duke), No. 2 (Kansas State ) and No. 3 (Boston College) seeds in Minnesota’s region were in big trouble. The Gophers beat all of them before finally being stopped by Diana Taurasi and UConn in the Final Four.
Kansas State coach Deb Patterson, who had her best team in 2004, saw the Wildcats taken apart by Minnesota here in Williams Arena. Asked earlier this season about the similarities between Minnesota and Nebraska, Patterson said there were many.
“I think that would be an excellent analogy,” she said. “The toughness, the cohesiveness. Each possession, up and down the floor, the matchups are extremely similar. Nebraska has an All-America-caliber player in Kelsey Griffin as their leader; and Minnesota had that in Whalen, who just did everything for them.
“[The Huskers] have a great emotional support in their community right now; there is a wave of momentum. And they have a grittiness that matches that Minnesota team. They’re a blue-collar team.”
Yori said it was hard not to root for the Gophers back in 2004.
“A lot of those players probably weren’t recruited at a real high level, just like our guys,” Yori said. “Probably no prima donnas, just like what we have. Just a hardworking group of young women who play for each other.”
Although Whalen is a guard — and will this summer play here in Minneapolis again as she was traded from Connecticut to the Lynx — and Griffin is a post player, Griffin said she looks to Whalen as a model she hopes to follow.
“What she was able to do for that team — and has continued to do in the WNBA — her court presence, her competitive edge, is admirable,” Griffin said. “She’s someone I would look up to — and did look up to when I was in high school — as a really good player and a leader.”
It remains to be seen if the Huskers can get to their program’s first Final Four the way the Gophers did in 2004. But you could see where perhaps Minnesotans — whose Gophers aren’t in the field this year — might want to “adopt” the Huskers for this tournament. (By the way, another connection — Griffin’s mother, Jan, is from Minnesota.)
“There was just something about that team that was more than basketball,” Griffin said. “It made them so addicting to watch. You just wanted them to do well.”
****SAME PEDIGREE, DIFFERENT COASTS****
MINNEAPOLIS — As the years go by and they are further and further removed from Rocky Top, coaches Nikki Caldwell of UCLA and Kellie Harper of NC State won’t be asked nearly as much about their common ground at Tennessee.
They will be identified with the programs they recently have taken over, Caldwell two years ago and Harper just this season, and their respective coasts.
If all goes well — and considering the starts both are off to, it looks like it will go well — they will be representatives of West Coast versus East Coast, Pac-10 versus ACC, blue versus red … not the Smoky Mountains, the SEC and orange. But, certainly, there always will be at least some ties that bind.
On Saturday, Caldwell’s Bruins won their first-round NCAA tournament game against Harper’s Wolfpack 74-54. Jasmine Dixon, a transfer from Rutgers, led four UCLA players in double figures with 17 points.
The victory earned UCLA a matchup with No. 1 seed Nebraska on Tuesday. The Bruins have faced another No. 1 seed, Stanford, three times this season — and lost all three games. With Stanford and Nebraska being ranked 2-3 for a lot of this season, having faced one so much is sure to help UCLA prepare for the other.
“Nebraska is a team that’s very polished,” Caldwell said. “There’s a lot of similarities with Stanford. Through Pac-10 play, I feel like we had the opportunity to go against opponents like Nebraska.”
The Huskers, who started Sunday night with an 83-44 win over Northern Iowa, got a chance to see a UCLA team that plays a type of pressure defense Caldwell calls “chaotic.” Caldwell said defining a defensive identity is one of the primary things the Pat Summitt “coaching tree” has learned from the 1,000-plus game winner.
“She taught us some things,” Caldwell said of Tennessee’s longtime mentor, for whom both she and Harper played. “If you know how to defend and what your scheme is, that’s half the battle right there. Her legacy will continue. We all carry — I know Kellie does — our experience, our Final Fours, our championships, through our kids now.
“And I was fortunate to be behind the scenes with [Summitt] for six years [as an assistant], so I had a different appreciation for what it meant to prepare your team for this time of the year. You take that with you, and you mold it to your team. The same thing that you require of a [Candace] Parker or an [Alexis] Hornbuckle, I require those things of my kids.”
Harper has done the same, first as a head coach at Western Carolina and then taking over for the legendary Kay Yow at NC State. The emotional components of becoming the leader of the Wolfpack after Yow were greater than would be the case if replacing almost anyone else at any other school.
Harper was refreshingly forthright Sunday about the difficulty of that.
“Every decision I made, I questioned and second guessed,” she said. “I tried to be very conscientious about everything. What I said to players. Letters I wrote to alumni. What I said at the Wolfpack Club caravan. Everything I did, I wanted to do it right. And for me, that’s been a big part of this season.”
All things considered, it’s hard to see how the Wolfpack’s first year under Harper could have been much better. The team finished 20-14, made the ACC tournament championship game and got an NCAA berth.
“They really took on a winner’s mentality,” Harper said of her players. “They began to walk on the court with a little swagger, believing they were going to win. And it didn’t matter who our opponent was. Sometimes we would win; sometimes we would not win. But we believed. And I think that’s the first step. Also, when you walked in the locker room after a loss, they were hurt. And if you don’t have that hurt inside, you don’t have a winner’s mentality.
“Strategically, we started playing to our strengths, which for us this year was just playing hard, playing defense and rebounding. Unfortunately, tonight, we weren’t able to do what we do well. But for the most part this season, the things that we could control, our team controlled.”
It was hard to do that against a UCLA squad that has won 15 of its past 17 games, with both losses to Stanford.
“Stanford’s a very experienced team, well rounded, balanced attack — and so we’ve had to guard that,” UCLA’s Erica Tukiainen said of what the Bruins can carry over to facing Nebraska. “We’ve had to adjust our offense and defense, but at the same time we’re constantly emphasizing that we have to play our kind of basketball. We’re going to rebound, trap hard, get the ball inside to Jasmine and Markel [Walker], and from there, work outside.”
The Bruins have learned a lot from Caldwell, just as the Wolfpack have from Harper.
“They actually started to buy into this system last summer, and it’s paid off for them,” Caldwell said of her players. “And it’s gotten them to the point where they are today.