Last night’s Tennessee UConn game could be summarized in one simple thought. Tennessee isn’t as bad as we thought and UConn isnt as good as we thought. The game which was hyped to be the epicenter of women’s basketball by ESPN like an Olympic Gold Medal Game really shows the disconnect between the surface level coverage of the sport by ESPN playing into the perception of what fans want. Obviously the two biggest college brands over the last 20 years in the sport are low hanging fruit for the reeling media giant but it is just another example how ESPN’s coverage of women’s basketball is handicapping the sport. While my concerns about ESPN (including having the Boston College logo up during the FSU and Clemson game on Watchespn even though I guess Florida State and Boston College have the same colors right?) have been well documented the night was bigger than ESPN’s low ceiling for women’s basketball coverage (remember the WNBA Draft?).
This game for Tennessee was a monster. Phillip Fulmer fired Holly Warlick (Tennessee royalty) and with his orange blood instilled another member of the Lady Vol Royal Family – Kellie Harper. Kellie Harper’s biggest problem this week was not Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies but Jeremy Pruitt and a losing football program. Tennessee fired Pruitt earlier in the week which led to the ousting or retirement of Phil Fulmer of the Vol Royal Family. The day of the UConn game Danny White (a member of a different royal family) former University of Central Florida Athletic Director was named Athletic Director at the University of Tennessee to replace Fulmer. White who reports are saying was “given an offer he could not refuse” has rebuilt programs at Buffalo and Central Florida. White fired Joi Williams who was a two time conference champion at UCF and brought Katie Abrahamson Henderson in from Albany and while at Buffalo hired Felicia Legette-Jack who was recently fired from Indiana but has turned Buffalo into a MAC power since her hire. For those in main stream media the focus on Danny White will be his hires in Men’s Basketball and Football but for us here we look at his ability to turn to underachieving women’s basketball programs into winners with great hires. Legette-Jack and Abrahamson-Henderson are two of the hottest names in mid-major coaching and likely will get Power 5 jobs in the near future. White’s brother (Mike) is the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Florida and father is the Athletic Director at Duke (formerly Notre Dame) who fired Joanne P. McCallie and hired Kara Lawson this past off season.
For Kellie Harper the audition for Danny White started at 7:00 PM EST on Thursday night. Tennessee led most of the game containing super-frosh Paige Bueckers to her worst shooting performance of the game before losing by just 6 to the Lady Vols. On day 1, the analysis – Tennessee isn’t that far off from UConn and UConn is good but not great. White had to feel good about potentially keeping some of the Vol Royalty on campus and not completely starting over. While Harper isn’t out of the woods yet this is a good step for her (along with a strong finish in the SEC) to a continuing to rise Tennessee program.
For Geno you wonder how long someone with his ego and past success can roll into Bulter and win 100-something to 30-something. At some point does that get old or unfulfilling? At some point if the program isn’t dominating with 100 game winning streaks and on ESPN every Monday night because the opponents are so bad does Geno say living in the frigid cold of Storrs worth it? We all knew UConn was probably going to win (they were a double digit favorite) but the level of play in a 67-61 win was not the best in women’s basketball. The hype and brand of the programs was. Now that Tennessee and UConn are back playing each other the more it looks like the trajectory of their programs could intersect sooner rather than later. While on the scoreboard and record book this will go in as a loss for Tennessee and win for UConn it was a successful day for the Lady Vols and it looks more and more like the end of an era is approaching at UConn.