Wes Moore was a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan when the oft-proclaimed “America’s Team” was still among the NFL’s elite.
The women’s basketball coach for the North Carolina State Wolfpack was well aware that the Cowboys were — and probably still are — a polarizing team.
“You either love ‘em or hate ‘em, but they still draw your attention,” Moore said on the eve of Sunday’s Texas-North Carolina State NCAA tournament game at the Erwin Center.
Moore’s affection for the Cowboys came up Saturday while discussing the University of Connecticut’s dominance over women’s basketball. About the time the coach was making his remarks, the 11-time national champs were putting the final touches on a 116-55 victory over Albany, extending their winning streak to 108 games.
The Longhorns and Wolfpack will meet for a berth in the Sweet 16 round of the Lexington (Ky.) Regional, which begins Friday. The ultimate goal, of course, is to reach the Final Four — and win.
If someone can grab the trophy away from UConn, of course.
Critics of women’s basketball complain the sport is too predictable. The top 16 teams play first- and second-round games at home. If UConn keeps winning, the Huskies won’t have to leave their state until the Final Four in Dallas. Compared to the men’s tournament, upsets in the women’s game are rare because top teams enjoy home cooking.
On the flip side, fans traditionally do not attend tournament games unless the home team is on the floor.
Texas coach Karen Aston does not subscribe to the notion that UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s team is bad for women’s basketball. From Rebecca Lobo and Diana Taurasi to Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart, the Huskies are household names.
“I don’t think exposure is bad, period,” said Aston, whose Longhorns have been eliminated from the NCAA tournament by UConn the past two years.
“People are still talking about women’s basketball and I promise you people are going to tune in to this tournament to see what happens,” Aston continued. “So if they’re bringing notoriety to our sport, you have to appreciate that. I appreciate that as a coach.”
This marks the third straight season that first- and second-round women’s games are held on home courts at the four top seeds. Two years ago Texas won at host California to advance to the Sweet 16; the Longhorns held serve at home last year to advance to the Sweet 16 in Bridgeport, Conn.
Roughly 10,000 people attended that Texas-UConn game in the Elite Eight.
“What we’re trying to do now is making sure that there’s butts in the seats for the young women who are performing,” Aston said. “The student-athletes put a lot of time and effort and commitment into what they’re doing. When they get to this stage they want to play in front of people. … You don’t want to play in front of an empty gym.”
On Friday, Texas defeated Central Arkansas 78-50 before 2,908 fans at the Erwin Center, up slightly from the 2,645 fans who saw the Horns defeat Alabama State in a first-round game last March. Aston said she was satisfied by the crowd, considering it went head-to-head with South by Southwest on a weekday afternoon.
“I don’t want an empty gym (Sunday) and we’ve worked really, really hard to get to play at home,” she said.
As for the future, there have been very preliminary discussions on future sites, Aston said. One idea is to have all teams that reach the Sweet 16 play at a neutral site, perhaps Las Vegas. This year the Sweet 16 regionals will be played at Oklahoma City, Lexington, Bridgeport (Conn.) and Stockton (Calif.).
Perhaps Moore summed it up best: “You’ve got to admire what what UConn has done and the rest of us gotta find a way to catch up.”