With March Madness coming soon, sports fans across the country will turn their gazes to Kentucky’s one-and-dones, Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, and the good looks of Villanova’s Jay Wright. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship has earned its place in the firmament of sports-watching greatness.
The first weekend of the Men’s NCAA tournament is my favorite sporting event of the year, without a doubt. But at the same time, 64 completely different teams will be also competing for a spot in another Final Four. And while fewer fans will be watching the Women’s NCAA tourney, the game deserves a bit more love.
What’s holding women’s college basketball back? The obvious point is pretty simple: women, especially at the college level, don’t dunk. People love dunks. I love dunks. There is something about watching 19-year-old kid jump higher than you’d be able to on a trampoline and slam one down. But dunking is very basic, especially at the collegiate level. It’s usually accomplished by people who are pretty tall just placing the ball in the hoop with two hands. It’s cavemanesque. Og get ball. Og see hoop. OG SLAM. There’s little finesse or nuance to a dunk, and it’s as much physical skill as it is talent. If your enjoyment of a basketball game is predicated on dunking, then you don’t know very much about basketball.
Speed is also something critics like to bring up. And sure, basketball has a lot of running. But with the exception of fast breaks, when does speed matter all that much? How often do you see a basketball play and think “Man, if that really fast guy could run only as fast as a really fast woman, that would never have worked?” So much of basketball is standing around. There are some good spurts of speed going towards the basket, but those are made better by the footwork, and not the 40-yard-dash time.
The fast breaks might not be quite as fast in the women’s game, but a good women’s basketball team can often be more impressive to watch. With a shorter shot clock (30 seconds compared to the men’s 35) and smaller players, women’s games can be as high-energy and fast-paced as a men’s games. Watching basketball for pure track speed is like watching football for punting; sure, you’re not as skilled as them, and it’s cool skill to watch, but in the end it only really pops up a few times per game. You really watch football for the passes and runs, and good game of women’s basketball, from a technical perspective, is not any worse than a good game of men’s basketball.
I’m not going to say that teamwork is more fun than a dunk. The physical advantages the top men’s players have over the top women’s players—speed and jumping ability—certainly give the men’s game an edge in terms of excitement. Watching Giannis Antetokoumpo take it to the hoop from the three-point arc without dribbling is probably my favorite thing to do in sports. But the dunks, the fast breaks, the questionable traveling non-calls, the insane verticals, are all frosting on the donut of basketball. You like it in moderation and it makes things exciting and different, but you came to Krispy Kreme to eat a ridiculously delicious donut.
Even without anyone over 6’5” on the floor or anyone who can run a 4.3 40, I have seen many of the other things we love to see in basketball: great shooting, hawkish defense, feisty drives to the basket, and great fall-away jumpers. The Xs and Os and the bones of what makes this sport so beloved are brought to the forefront when so much more of what happens below the rim. The women’s team with the highest field-goal percentage (Connecticut) has a higher percentage than their male counterparts (Gonzaga) but the men have the ability to LITERALLY SHOOT FROM ZERO INCHES FROM THE BASKET. And while not every women’s team shoots as well as UConn, it’s demonstrative of the premium placed on playing smart basketball when you don’t have anybody who can jump nearly three feet straight up in the air.
Now, I will concede that my interaction with the sport has been colored by one particularly good team. I’m writing as a fan and former radio broadcaster of George Washington women’s basketball, currently ranked #22 in the AP Poll. I’ve seen their star player, Jonquel Jones, do absolutely unreal things on a basketball court. Though her coast-to-coasts don’t finish with a slam, you feel like you just watched five players get collectively posterized. This is a very solid top-to-bottom squad, and I’m very lucky to have a team this good to root for. But this shouldn’t cheapen my argument at all. If you watch a game with two bad teams and feel disappointed, just remember that you shouldn’t judge a sport based on its bad teams. It’s like judging a book by its cover if its cover was just a torn piece of green construction paper.
When March Madness rolls around, I’ll try my best to watch some of the tournament. The ESPN family of networks have broadcasted the whole tournament since 2003, but it’s hard to be excited about watching a game on TV when there aren’t as many excited fans in the arena, like it is for most women’s games, outside the Final Four and the top few programs.
Even if you can’t see it, when you’re watching a sporting event in an arena with empty seats, you can feel it. Maybe it’s an audio design issue or some other sort of production problem, but either way, it impacts how much fun it is to watch a game. It’s definitely a chicken-egg problem when it comes to giving gravitas to women’s basketball on TV, and when Geno Auriemma runs through most teams like a knife through butter, there isn’t much intrigue there. Mid-major Cinderellas are few and far between in the NCAA tournament. But the game itself is as good of a product, if not more so, then what the men will be doing. So while I’ll still be watching Willie Cauley-Stein earn his NBA eligibility and Duke lose in the first weekend to a school I’ve never heard of, I’ll also see what Dawn Staley’s South Carolina team can do, or if Jewell Loyd can help Notre Dame win a title, or if even my beloved GW Colonials can make a deep run. Because it’s still basketball, and it’s still great to watch.