Among the dozen women's basketball teams in the Southeastern Conference, eight still have Lady in their nicknames. But the spectacle that unfolds when any two of them meet will not be mistaken for a Helena Bonham-Carter movie.
Go through the SEC standings, more or less bottom to top, and munch on this pretzel logic: Cellar-dweller South Carolina has won by 13 points over Kentucky, which has won by four over Arkansas, which has won by nine over LSU, which has won by 15 over Mississippi, which has won by 10 over Alabama, which has won by three over Auburn, which has won by 16 over Florida, which has won by 21 over Mississippi, which has won by six over perennial power Tennessee, which has won by 16 over Mississippi State, which has won by three over preseason favorite Vanderbilt, which whupped first-place Georgia 71-66 last Friday, thereby ending the 19-game winning streak that had carried the Lady Bulldogs to the top of the polls.
All of which proves conclusively that a team from the nether reaches of the SEC is 121 points better than the team at its summit. Or maybe not so conclusively. Whatever, collectively the SEC humbles the rest of women's college basketball. Three times the league has sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament, and it has averaged 5.7 bids per year since the women's NCAAs began in 1982. All but one of the women's Final Fours have featured at least one SEC team, and no conference has claimed as many tournament appearances, wins or titles. Tennessee has won all three of the SEC's national championships—in 1987, '89 and '91—but Georgia, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Alabama have reached the Final Four.
This season the SEC features the likely national player of the year in Georgia guard Saudia Roundtree and the national freshman of the year favorite in Tennessee forward Chamique Holdsclaw. It could boast of a 143-31 nonconference record going into South Carolina's game on Monday against Wofford. And it has a new seven-year TV deal with CBS. Small wonder that as many as eight of this down-and-dirty dozen have been ranked in the Top 25 in the same week. "But I don't think the number of ranked teams is the most meaningful stat," says Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster. " Mississippi State is 13-11, and that's the second-worst record in the league. In this league nobody's packing for spring break."
Even benighted LSU, which had won three league games in the previous three seasons and whose troglodyte administration seems to think that Title IX is about a third of the way down the shelf of Nancy Drew mysteries, will finish above .500 for the first time since 1992. "I don't believe in coming back in another life, but if I did, I'd want to be a women's basketball coach again, just in a different conference," says Mississippi's Van Chancellor. "Sometimes I feel I'm out in the Atlantic on a little raft with only one paddle."
Adds Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, "I recently told our staff that I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be a ranked team in a conference with only one or two other ranked teams and win 30- and 40-point blowouts. But after going overtime with South Carolina [last Thursday, before winning 79-73], I'm ready to find out. I'm sick of this."
For years the Lady Vols dominated the SEC with their pound-it-inside style, but today there's a sophistication to the basketball played in the league. Georgia applies withering all-court pressure. Auburn gels after teams too, but with a bamboozling mix of matchup-zone and pressure defenses. And Vanderbilt runs the same complex triangle offense the Chicago Bulls do—and does it so adroitly that Duke men's coach Mike Krzyzewski, in the studio during ABC's telecast of Vandy's 93-61 victory over North Carolina State on Feb. 4, rhapsodized about the Commodores' execution.
Scarcely 20 years ago most SEC schools didn't even field a "girls" team; now, since the first of the year, in a league where football coaches have been reflexively given the additional honorific of athletic director, Foster has been serving as Vanderbilt's AD. Between supervising a game-day shoot-around and guiding his team to a 74-60 defeat of Florida on Jan. 28, he worked out a deal to keep assistant football coach Woody Widenhofer from jumping to the Minnesota Vikings, and you could make the ease that it was only the third-most-important thing he did that day.
How has women's basketball excellence filtered out of Knoxville? By the late 1980s most SEC schools had decided to plow some of their football revenue into equipment, air travel and better coaches' salaries for women's basketball rather than into plusher carpet for the defensive line coach's office. And there has been unusual stability among the league's coaches, half of whom are men. They have 189 years of experience among them, 123 of those years at their current schools. "It becomes a self-perpetuating proposition," says Georgia coach Andy Landers. "Recruits say, 'I want to play in these places, with those people, and win those games.' "
No player in the land has proved to be more up for a challenge than Roundtree, especially during an 18-day stretch in January. Through fearless scheduling Landers has turned the Lady Bulldogs into a national power—"When you're as talented as we are," he says, "you're not looking for a chicken basket and a blanket for a picnic"—and in five consecutive victories over ranked opponents Roundtree did much more than consistently score 20 or more points. She added eight assists as Georgia ended Tennessee's 42-game SEC regular-season winning streak with a 77-71 victory. Though only 5'7", she had 10 rebounds in a 79-71 win at Auburn. At Connecticut, as the Lady Bulldogs put a 75-67 halt to the 44-game home winning streak of the defending national champions, she regularly whizzed by Husky point guard Jen Rizzotti and then celebrated a critical late-game hoop by sticking her tongue triumphantly out for the ESPN cameras. After Georgia spoiled the inaugural women's game at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center with a 79-78 victory, Rene Portland, coach of the then 10th-ranked Lady Lions, said, "She was hitting shots most of us couldn't make in a game of P-I-G." And in a 72-61 defeat of Florida, after a 13-0 Lady Gator run had whittled a Georgia lead to two, Roundtree nailed a momentum-muffling three-pointer.