While her team's 6-1 start has been a pleasant surprise for Wisconsin women's basketball coach Lisa Stone, she still might be coaching for her job this season. Entering her fourth year, Stone's teams are 40-51 overall, 14-34 in the Big Ten. And general interest in the program has declined since she took over from Jane Albright in 2003. The Badgers drew just over 6,000 fans per game last season, down nearly 600 from Albright's final season.
Unlike Albright, who perhaps took branding to an extreme when she christened her program 'Badgerball,' Stone has not been able to generate much fan excitement. She's an intensely competitive person whose teams play hard. But on a crowded winter sports calendar featuring two national championship hockey teams, a highly ranked men's basketball squad and increasingly popular high school scene, Stone's squad isn't putting butts in the seats.
And whereas Albright's nine-year career at Wisconsin yielded a .601 winning percentage, three 20-win seasons and five trips to the NCAA tournament, Stone has yet to see post-season action.
If she were running for reelection, people might be asking if the women's basketball program is in better shape today than it was four years ago. Despite Stone's struggles and the statistical success of her predecessor, this is not an easy question to answer.
Albright was forced to resign after her first losing season at Wisconsin, a 7-21 debacle in 2002-03. But longtime fans will probably cite the 2001-02 season as the biggest factor pushing Albright out. After starting 16-1 and ranking fifth in the country, Albright's Badgers lost six straight and finished the season on a 3-11 skid.
The athletic department never allowed Albright to right the ship, citing the direction her program was headed, and eagerly welcomed Stone into the fold in the spring of 2003. Since then, the Badgers have been inconsistent, often winning big one game but losing big the next. The reasons: a bare cupboard left by Albright and heavy reliance on the young, inexperienced players from Stone's first and best recruiting class.
That class includes current juniors Jolene Anderson, Janese Banks ' both guards ' and forward Danielle Ward, who are all starters this season. The other two players from that class, guards Akiya Alexander and Shari' Welton, have transferred. Alexander had academic problems, but Welton said she was dissatisfied with her limited role in an offense dedicated to getting the ball to Anderson.
A scoring machine from Port Wing, Wis., Anderson averages 17.5 points per game; last year she reached 1,000 career points in less time than any Wisconsin basketball player of either gender. But the Badgers' success this year will rely on their ability to get Banks similarly involved offensively. So far, Banks is averaging 15 points per game, a development Stone credits to the strong contributions of first-year point guards Sarah Ingison and Rae Lin D'Alie.
'She's not forcing things this year, and she's playing her true position,' Stone says. 'Both she and Jolene are now on the wing position. Having Sarah and Rae running the point for us and distributing the basketball allows them to be comfortable offensively as well as defensively. Now we don't have to have one of them back as a safety, and we can have both Jo and Janese crashing the boards.'
That shift might be the biggest reason for the Badgers' early success against some tough nonconference teams, including UW-Milwaukee and Kansas State, who each won over 20 games last year. But Stone must sustain that success and get her team to the NCAA tournament this year.
Thanks to a 44-24 drubbing of Notre Dame at home last Saturday, USC leapfrogged Michigan into the Bowl Championship Series' number two spot. That means if the Trojans can beat UCLA this Saturday, as they have each of the last seven years, they'll play for the national championship against Ohio State on Jan. 8. It will be their third straight title game appearance.
So what makes them better than Michigan in the eyes of the BCS? Search me.
Both teams have one loss this year. Michigan's was on the road against top-ranked and undefeated Ohio State, 42-39. But USC got beat by 8-4 Oregon State, currently ranked 24th, by a score of 33-31. Trojan fans say their team would have won if their superstar receiver, Dwayne Jarrett, hadn't had to sit out with an injury.
But, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, you play with the team you have, not necessarily the team you want. Here's to a UCLA upset over USC and a Big Ten rematch for the national championship. That would really annoy those Southeastern Conference schools who dreamed up this BCS nonsense in the first place.