In more than two decades coaching women’s college basketball, Maryland’s Brenda Frese has been front and center during the sport’s growth in popularity. Every NCAA tournament game is televised, and players such as Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins have been able to build name recognition in line with many of their male counterparts.
Yet despite that progress, Frese and her coaching peers in the Washington area acknowledged this week that women’s college basketball could benefit from a handful of improvements to make the game more aesthetically appealing and to stem a recent decline in spectator interest.
Coaches of area programs addressed those issues in the wake of an NCAA-sanctioned report released Monday that assessed the state of women’s basketball. The NCAA hired Val Ackerman to conduct the project, which took roughly six months to complete, and the founding president of the WNBA conducted extensive interviews with coaches, college presidents, athletic directors, television network representatives and other stakeholders in the game.
“I thought there were a lot of great points,” Frese said. “I think Val Ackerman is really on to something. I just think the next step is we all have to get behind it. If no action is taken, Val went to a lot of work for no reason.”
According to Ackerman’s findings, shooting percentages and scoring plummeted to all-time lows this past season. The report recommended in-game rule modifications to quicken pace of play, reduce physicality and generate more scoring, among them a 24-second shot clock and widening the lane.
Other ideas mentioned in the report are more radical, including lowering the rim, adding a new scoring system to award teams points for winning a quarter or half and restrictions banning defense outside the three-point line at selected times. The findings will be taken under consideration by various NCAA committees.
Women’s basketball teams currently are permitted 15 scholarships. The report suggested reducing that number to 13, presumably creating more parity among the 343 Division I schools.
“I love that one,” Navy Coach Stefanie Pemper said. “It spreads the wealth. People are stockpiling. Women are not getting the playing opportunities that they can be getting.”
Pemper has directed the Midshipmen to three consecutive Patriot League tournament titles, but Ackerman recommended either eliminating conference tournaments or reducing them to the top four or eight regular season finishers.
That modification figures into part of a larger recommendation to shorten the season, which by all accounts has widespread support within the game. Ackerman specifically proposed eliminating two games from the regular season.
Another proposal would compress the season into the spring semester, meaning practices would begin in late November. Under current rules, teams are allowed to start practicing in mid-October and begin play in early November.
“We play too many games,” Frese said. “I think what we ask Division I athletes in men’s and women’s basketball to do is tough when you’re talking about juggling academics and travel. I think the length of our season is entirely too long.”
Maryland and other national powers routinely play upwards of 34 games per season. This past season, Connecticut played 39 games on the way to its seventh NCAA title.
“I would be for shortening the regular season,” American Coach Matt Corkery said. “I think [the report] mentioned shortening it by two. That doesn’t do a lot. If you’re going to shorten it, take it down. Take two weeks off the season. Take four games out. Take six games out, and make a significant change.”
Said George Washington Coach Jonathan Tsipis: “You always want quality over quantity. But I think where we’re at right now, it’s quantity over quality.”
The report also targeted sagging attendance at the NCAA tournament. The 2011 Final Four in Indianapolis, for instance, failed to sell out, and a pair of second-round games in this past season’s NCAA tournament attracted fewer than 1,500 fans. Ackerman suggested allowing the top 16 seeds to host first- and second-round games, consolidating the four regional sites to two and exploring a multiyear site for the Final Four similar to the model college baseball uses for its World Series in Omaha.
“Every coach will tell you their most amazing and memorable wins have been on the road,” Pemper said. “I think the trade-off is so worth it if you’re going to have packed stands. What is more special in terms of the experience for these women than to run into an arena that has a ton of people? To me, I put that really high on the list.”