A single team among nearly seven hundred men’s and women’s squads playing Division I basketball has avoided defeat so far during the 2012-13 season.
You might think this survivor’s status at the college game’s highest competitive level would attract considerable attention.
You would be mistaken.
Duke’s women -- led by 6-3 center Elizabeth Williams (the ACC leader in blocked shots and a top scorer and rebounder) and 5-11 guard Chelsea Gray (the ACC leader in assists and steals) -- continue to fly far under the popular radar. That relative anonymity is normal for women playing in the Triangle area of North Carolina, a supposed basketball hotbed. Just down the road North Carolina’s women are 18-1 and comparably overlooked.
Never mind that Joanne McCallie’s Blue Devils have won 33 in a row at Cameron Indoor Stadium against ACC opponents, or posted a 35-2 home record against league competition in her six years in Durham.
Perhaps success tonight at No. 3 Connecticut, where ACC women’s teams traditionally tend to crash and burn, would attract significant notice back home. Blue Devil junior Haley Peters, her team’s leading rebounder, called it a chance for the fourth-ranked team “to see if we’ve come as far as we think we have.”
It’s doubtful, though, that even a victorious result will create more than a ripple in ACC sports consciousness.
More likely, a core of devoted fans will continue to pay heed – Duke and Maryland both average more fans for women’s home games (4,443 and 4,216, respectively) than Boston College (3621) and Miami (3459) draw for their men. That’s been the case for years.
Meanwhile most media and fans, including the supposedly basketball-hungry Cameron Crazies, turn a blind eye. In fact, some around the Duke women’s program express frustration they cannot harness the fervor of the student body in a manner comparable to the men.
On a recent night, while McCallie’s club upped its record to 16-0, yards away many Duke students remained in their tents, in line to get prime spots for a men’s matchup with Georgia Tech a day later.
Peters readily acknowledges the level of men’s achievement is so high it’s foolish to complain about the difference in support. Still, she notes that “for the boys” student attendance at games “is like a social thing … as much as going to the basketball game itself.” (How else can a student get on TV, or rub body paint with Dick Vitale?)
Women’s fans, Peters believes, are more basketball-savvy, appreciating the game for its own sake.
Nearly 4,600 fans were present at Cameron, half of capacity, when Virginia Tech, victim No. 16, came calling last week.
The Hokies lack experience, a point guard, and a tradition of ACC success. Still, under Dennis Wolff, a longtime ACC men’s assistant and for 15 years head coach at Boston University, the squad plays together, plays a tough, physical style, and plays hard to the bitter end.
That was not nearly enough in a 58-26 loss in which Virginia Tech recorded 27 turnovers and only 12 field goals. The mismatch only served to illustrate the irksome gap between elite programs and everyone else that hurts the legitimacy of the women’s game in many eyes.
“They’re about as good as we’ve played,” Wolff said of Duke, which boasts players from 10 states and France and routinely brings in top-five recruiting classes under McCallie. “They’ve got very good players at every position. They’re smart kids. They’ve played a lot. They put a lot of ball pressure on.”
Lopsided competition isn’t the only reason women’s basketball still cannot gain ground as a major attraction.
Tradition remains with the men’s game, a part of the sports culture long before Title IX came along. Resentment at demands for equality endures, whispered now but present nonetheless.
The preponderance of media members are men. Women’s locker rooms are off-limits, severely restricting informal post-game schmoozing and bonding.
TV angles make women appear smaller and slower than they are in person, particularly when wearing the almost-shapeless garb so common in basketball, insisted Nora Lynn Finch, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for women’s basketball and senior women’s administrator.
Even among the men N.C. State’s Rodney Purvis, a freshman, stands out for wearing shorts that purposely reveal his knees. “Baggy shorts are out of style,” he declared with a laugh.
If only it were so.
And, frankly, we’re so used to a certain style of play – fast, athletic, above the rim – that most anything else pales by comparison.
“Women fortunately do not look like men and fortunately do not have the size, the bulk, the strength that men have,” said Finch. “We were created differently and therefore we don’t play the same. Our game doesn’t look the same.”
The ACC’s Finch, previously an associate athletic director at N.C. State for 28 years, said those fundamental differences don’t stop young women from trying to emulate men instead of embracing their own style. “Attempts to look like men, act like men, have that boorish behavior on the court like men, does not bode well for the future of women’s anything, any women’s sport,” she observed.
Much thought is currently being devoted to making the women’s game more popular. Among the factors to be considered, Finch believes uniforms that are less billowy and modest, more revealing of the female form, would add to the sport’s popularity.
“I agree 100 percent,” Wolff said. But, he added, acutely aware he’s dealing with one of our society’s most sensitive topics, “You have to be very careful when you’re saying that.”
In only his second year as a women’s coach, Wolff finds his players appreciate having him “explain why you’re doing whatever you’re doing” more than was the case with young men.
He’s also less apt to “get up into” the faces of his players, and to give them time to digest lessons rather than confront them immediately. “It’s been a learning experience,” he said.
Wolff also recognizes the persistent struggle for attention in women’s basketball.
“I think that’s been the frustration that women’s coaches have had for years,” he said with some detachment. “I think it’s just what the public wants.”
Or doesn’t want.
At least for now.