Aside from just hosting four very good basketball teams, this year’s Greensboro regional also contains a fascinating dichotomy. Paired off by match up, the programs involved have followed one of two distinctive historical arcs.
The early game features two teams following Historical Team Arc A: The program started in 1974, enjoyed early success under a Hall of Fame coach, and has recently reached its highest level of achievement since said coach departed. To wit:
Iowa had a tremendous run under C. Vivian Stringer. With the legendary coach at the helm from 1983-1995, the Hawkeyes ripped off five Big Ten Championships, nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances, four Sweet 16’s, three Elite 8’s, and a run to the 1993 Final Four. When Stringer departed for Rutgers, Iowa continued a fairly steady string of Dance invitations, but only recently made it back to the Sweet Sixteen, first in 2015 and again this year. Head coach Lisa Bluder took the reins in 2000, and has taken her team to its highest apex in quite some time. Iowa finished the year 26-6 (14-4 in conference), won the Big Ten Tournament, and are now back in the Round of Sixteen for the second time in four seasons.
Similarly, North Carolina State’s early (and middle) years were presided over by the utterly regal brilliance of Kay Yow, who created a blueprint of dominance including 14 trips to the Big Dance, 11 Sweet Sixteens, and a Final Four birth in 1998. After Yow’s tragic passing in early 2009, the Wolfpack ran through some middling years, but coach Wes Moore has now led the team to their second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
Whoever wins the first day, either the Hawkeyes or Wolfpack will reach a height of postseason achievement unequaled since their legendary Founding Mothers were shaping not only the futures of their respective programs, but of the modern era of women’s basketball.
The there’s Historical Arc B: Not much of a historical footprint, taken over by a Hall-Of-Fame caliber genius, and vaulted into the highest echelon of the game going forward. That’s the second game: two teams with little historical significance that have catapulted themselves into the “Best Program In The Country” discussion over the past decade. Baylor and South Carolina may not have much in the way of foundations, but with Hall of Famers (as both players and coaches) at the helm, they have become juggernauts.
Under head coach Kim Mulkey, the Baylor Bears are making their eleventh consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance this season. They’ve also won nine of the last eleven Big 12 Tournaments and two National Championships (2005, 2012). Baylor finished the year 33-1 (18-0 in conference) and earned the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s Big Dance. Mulkey’s pedigree is unimpeachable. With a trophy case (maybe a whole trophy wing in her house at this point?) full of awards and championships, the only question is how much more success she can achieve before hanging up her whistle. With her at the helm, Baylor has been one of the most consistently dominant teams in the sport.
South Carolina has enjoyed a similarly successful journey under Dawn Staley. The Gamecocks have logged seven Sweet 16 runs on Staley’s watch; six straight from 2014 to right now. During her tenure, they’ve made three Elite 8’s, two Final Fours, and cut down the nets in 2017. This year, the Gamecocks finished regular-season play 21-9 (11-4 SEC) and are on the brink of another Elite 8 berth. It probably helps when your coach has performed on the biggest stage at every possible level. Who better to guide a team through the mist, after all?
No matter the outcomes, we will see one program attempting to outshine its illustrious past pitted against a team whose shadow is only now being fully cast over the basketball landscape. No matter the permutation, a team fighting for the past (and renewed present) will take on a team defining the (relatively new) present and the potential future.
Either way, it’s going to be fantastic.