March 16, 2016 10:30:07 AM
There are many differences between men's and women's college basketball, but on almost every level, the gap is closing.
The game the women play today is far more advanced than a generation ago. Across the board, the women who play the game on the highest level of college basketball are far more athletic, skilled and knowledgeable of the game than their predecessors.
The women's game has evolved in other ways, too, most notably in popularity.
Prior to this season (the final statistics for 2015-16 have yet to be compiled), NCAA women's basketball had drawn 11 million fans nationally for eight consecutive years. Last season, South Carolina led the nation in average home attendance with more than 12,000 fans per game. That figure is likely to be even higher when this year's figures are calculated.
On Monday, Mississippi State's women's program was awarded a fifth seed in the NCAA women's tournament, which begins this weekend. The selection was something of a good news, bad news proposition. The Lady Bulldogs were one of 16 teams given the opportunity to host first- and second-round games, which will be played Friday and Sunday at Humphrey Coliseum, a first for the program.
The bad news? If MSU wins both of its games this weekend, the Bulldogs will head to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to face the University of Connecticut. Over the past 15 years or so, UConn's record resembles that of the Harlem Globetrotters; the team has lost 13 games in that span and have won eight of the past 14 national championships. At 32-0, UConn is a prohibitive favorite to win its fourth straight title.
But that is a worry for another day.
In the meantime, the Bulldogs and their fans will celebrate their success to date, as well they should.
In some respects, the MSU program is representative of the evolution of the women's game itself -- its steady growth since the arrival of Vic Schaefer as coach shows a program that has grown from irrelevance to prominence over a remarkable short period of time. Four years ago, in Schaefer's first year at MSU, the Bulldogs struggled to a 13-17 record and were regarded with indifference - averaging less than 2,000 fans per game, or about 20 percent capacity of the Hump.
Since then, the Bulldogs have progressed steadily. This season, 16th-ranked MSU finished with a share of second place in the historically tough Southeastern Conference (its best conference finish ever), climbed as high as eighth in the national polls, reached the finals of the SEC Tournament for the first time, earned its second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament and - should the Bulldogs win both games this weekend - will eclipse last year's record for wins in a season. MSU is 26-7 going into the weekend. Along the way, MSU has shattered attendance records, averaging more than 5,000 fans per home game.
For all that success, the journey is not complete.
The Lady Bulldogs have muscled their way into the national conversation, but they have yet to establish themselves among the elite of women's basketball.
Even so, the Bulldogs are certainly trending in that direction.
For those who have followed MSU basketball, and for all those who may be inspired to join the crowd, this weekend's games are a celebration of that progress and an affirmation that the best is yet to come.
Tickets for this weekend's game are both affordable and available. We urge you to come to the Hump, cheer on the Bulldogs and bear witness to a remarkable transformation.