After the high of winning the Western Athletic Conference Tournament and the low of losing by 68 to the University of Connecticut, there’s reason to believe our women’s basketball team, ripe from breaking a decades long NCAA Tournament drought, will be our university’s first major sport to transform itself into a regional power.
This team’s ability to turn potential into reality depends on how much they can develop, particularly at the defensive end.
With how great it felt finally getting a team into the NCAA Tournament, it’s easy to forget the Vandal women needed to win their conference tournament to finish above .500. Even easier to miss is the slim margin of victory the Vandals amassed in those three games — seven total points. How to interpret the Western Athletic Conference Tournament run will shape expectations for next season.
One view of the Vandal women’s NCAA run is predicated upon luck. The Vandals were sub .500 headed into their tournament, and 3-8 in games decided by less than six points throughout the regular season. This same team ranked 279 out of 343 Division 1 teams in points allowed at 66.8 points-per-game, while boasting a .8 –meaning negative– assist-to-turnover ratio. These are numbers indicative of a fundamentally flawed team that just got hot in a weak conference.
The other view requires the lens of player development. A team starting five underclassmen winning a string of close games they statistically would have lost earlier in the season is evidence of youth learning how to win. The defensive number becomes better when considering the Vandals held opponents to 38.3 percent from the field, good for 152 in the nation, and our offensive rankings — 112 in points per game at 64.8 and number 10 in the nation in three-pointers made at 8.1 a game — could improve without any strategic adjustments by accounting for freshmen, sophomores and juniors performing better with another year’s worth of practice.
Separately, we cannot ignore how hard it is for young teams to play Division 1 caliber defense. Coming out of high school, few freshmen receive the type of defensive instruction they require to succeed in college. High school players are discovered more often for averaging 20 points a game than for their defense. Teaching not just the technique but the sets and schemes a coach wants is close to a 2-3 year project with the youth the Idaho women employ.
In short, there’s evidence to suggest this team’s future NCAA Tournaments, conference championships and Cowan Spectrum attendance lies in the statistically backed proposition that their offensive output should remain close to constant, while defense should improve significantly on that 66.8 points allowed per game.
So maybe this year’s run benefited from some luck, as all successful seasons do. Yet, considering the returning talent this team possesses, there’s reason to believe the Vandal women’s basketball team will be the first major sport on this campus to regularly compete for conference championships and contend with local powers like Gonzaga and the University of Montana, not just for recruits but for the honor of “best in the northwest.” The pressure is on to develop existing potential into something tangible, but that’s one of those problems a lot of teams would love to have.
Brian Marceau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org