Last March, the NCAA selected just three teams from the Big Ten conference to play in its national championship tournament for Division I women's basketball teams. The Wisconsin Badgers' 16-15 record (8-10 in Big Ten) meant they didn't make this cut. Instead, they played in the Women's National Invitational Tournament, where they reached the finals before losing to Wyoming.
That showing had Badger fans feeling optimistic at the start of this season. The Badgers returned all but one player and are led by three senior starters. The best of them, Jolene Anderson, won a gold medal with Team U.S.A. at the U-21 World Championships over the summer. She's also become the first women's basketball player at Wisconsin to surpass 2,000 career points, taking over as the program's all-time leading scorer with a 42-point performance on Jan. 13 at Iowa.
Perhaps more notably, head coach Lisa Stone is in her make-or-break fifth season. When big schools bring in high-profile coaches, as when Wisconsin lured Stone away from Drake in 2003, they urge fans to withhold harsh judgment for five years. In that time, a good coach should be able to recruit her kind of players, install her system and build a foundation for achievement. In the case of college basketball, achievement is defined by getting to the NCAA tournament in March.
But with 11 games remaining, Stone's Badgers are at 8-9, and their 1-6 Big Ten record has them in 10th place out of 11 teams in the conference. The Badgers are currently mired in a four-game losing streak and, unless they win six of their remaining games, will finish with a worse record than last year. And Anderson could log one of the great careers in the history of women's college basketball without ever appearing in her sport's showcase event.
If the Badgers continue on their present course, Stone should - and will - be held responsible for failing to get her team to the Big Dance. But it's still an open question how she will be compared to her predecessor.
Jane Albright was fired in 2003 after compiling a 161-107 record and leading her teams to five NCAA tournaments in nine seasons. To date, Stone's record at Wisconsin is 64-73. Average attendance has declined every year she's been in Madison and has never reached the levels seen during Albright's tenure.
The problem isn't offense. The Badgers are averaging 69 points per game in the Big Ten season and have scored over 70 in each of their last five games. But they're giving up 74 points per game. Most recently, Wisconsin gave up 79 to Ohio State on Sunday behind Marscilla Packer's 32 points, which included six of eight three-point shooting. Afterwards, Stone was grasping for positives.
"To come in here and to battle for a five-point loss is a bit of a moral victory," she said in her post-game press conference. "Hopefully, this is a turning point for us because we put ourselves in the position to win once again and just couldn't get it."
If Bo Ryan used the term "moral victory" after a loss to a Big Ten rival, the media would vilify him. So why does Stone get away with it? Might it be because nobody really cares about women's basketball in Wisconsin? If that's the case, isn't it another strike against Lisa Stone?