NEW ORLEANS — The Women’s Final Four last year was, to be generous, an imbalanced foursome.
It was the Big One and the Little Three, with uber-dominant Baylor slicing through the pack like an icebreaker en route to the championship and an unprecedented 40-0 record.
Baylor fell far short of the big show this year, though a ghost image of the Bears still had a presence in New Orleans Arena as Brittney Griner came to town to pick up what must be a hollow national player of the year award.
If Louisville’s Sweet 16 upset of Baylor brushed some of the glitter off this year’s event — UL coaches were seen here Saturday sporting T-shirts with the battle cry “#partycrashers” on the back — the rock that the Cardinals launched from their slingshot was a Griner-sized slab of parity for women’s basketball’s biggest party.
No offense to Baylor, but it’s a welcome change for these proceedings.
There are still familiar names here. Connecticut is in the Final Four for the sixth straight year, breaking a record it shared with LSU and Stanford for most consecutive appearances. UConn plays Notre Dame in a semifinal for the third straight year, like two old and contentious friends (Bobby Knight and Digger Phelps, perhaps) sharing a table in their favorite restaurant.
Louisville has been here once before, in 2009, though its opponent, California, has not. Cal coach Lindsey Gottlieb jokingly referred to their semifinal as the undercard for what has the look and feel of a main event between the Fighting Irish and Huskies, but the Golden Bears and Cardinals have every right to feel they belong here.
And that they can win.
What Louisville did to Baylor in Oklahoma City in the regional semifinals was historic and perhaps a game-changer. Though it deprived the Final Four of the game’s biggest star — and arguably the best player ever to suit up in women’s college basketball in any era — it was probably for the best.
The women’s tournament has long been short on the kind of madness that the men’s tournament markets itself on each spring. If name-brand recognition has to take a hit just this once, that’s the price of what will hopefully soon pass for more parity in the women’s game.
Not to discredit Louisville’s ability or to credit coach Jeff Walz for turning water into wine for conjuring up his hack-and-hurl game plan against Baylor — hack Griner and hurl up an unconscionable number of 3-pointers — but if the Cardinals can beat the Bears, anything can happen in this here Final Four.
It would have been natural to count Louisville as spent after that monumental upset, but it came back two nights later to trounce Tennessee 86-78 to reach New Orleans. So two more wins wouldn’t be as stunning as what Louisville accomplished two games ago.
It would be natural to count Cal out, too.
Women’s Final Four first-timers rarely succeed, though Texas A&M shattered that illusion two years ago. But the Bears bring to the big stage the kind of poise you usually see in baseball teams, not basketball squads.
This is a team that was thrilled to get a round of Easter Sunday smoothies on the way to practice the day before the Spokane Regional final against Georgia. It’s a team that comes here jonesing almost as much for a good plate of beignets as a national championship trophy.
But Cal is good enough to claim the first and spread powdered sugar all over the second. The Bears, led by forward Gennifer Brandon and center Talia Caldwell, rebound like no laid-back West Coast squad you could imagine. If Louisville thinks it found the key in being able to tranquilize Griner, it had better be ready to bring a similar kind of intensity against Cal.
If anyone in the post-Baylor world is a favorite around here, it’s Notre Dame. The Irish have the best record (35-1) and are 3-for-3 in games against UConn this season.
Notre Dame may virtually brim with confidence, but the crown of great expectations seems to lie uneasily on Irish heads.
While Louisville is brash and Cal is loose and UConn’s Geno Auriemma is caustic and occasionally profane (he dropped a surprising four-letter word during his news conference), Notre Dame preaches a business-like approach. But it seems to be a mask for a team that’s tight, a team that knows it’s tumbling dice against inevitable odds that say it can’t keep beating UConn — by slim margins — forever.
“Notre Dame should be playing with the confidence of knowing, ‘Hey, we beat them three times,’ ” Walz said. “But at the same time, I’d be going, ‘Dang, I wish we wouldn’t have beat them three times.’ I mean, it’s tough to beat somebody four times in a year.”
Especially that somebody.
UConn plays vice-grip defense, but offensively this isn’t the best Huskies team ever to come down the Connecticut Turnpike. UConn’s scoring can tank at critical times, and such a breakdown could be the ultimate letdown against Notre Dame.
Personally, I’m predicting a Cal-UConn final Tuesday night, but I’m probably wrong. This year’s Women’s Final Four is that hard to predict.
And that’s a good thing.