WBB Column: A tale of two leagues
Plus Sunday press conference audio

March 23, 2008

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Vanderbilt's Sunday Press Conf. - Balcomb, Risper & Wirth

West Virginia's Sunday Press Conf. - Carey, Owens & Cole

Read Transcript from Sunday's Press Conferences

It's a tale as old as time. Well since 1982 at least.

Over the 26 previous years of the NCAA Women's Tournament's existence, teams from two leagues have consistently risen to the top. The tale is the dominance of the Big East and the Southeastern Conferences when March and April roll around.

Based on current conference membership, the two powerhouses have produced half (13-26) of the tournament champions, with the SEC holding a 7-6 edge for the most champions from one conference.

The Big East, which began sponsoring women's basketball in 1983, three years after the SEC, ranks second all time in NCAA championships (6), championship game appearances (7); third in wins (166) and Final Four appearances (11); and sixth in appearances (89), losses (83).

The SEC ranks first in tournament appearances (168), wins (307), championships (7), championship game appearances (10) and Final Four appearances (32). It even ranks first in losses with 161.

The one tournament stat the SEC hasn't led the pack is in winning percentage, where the league's .656 mark ranks second. The top honor in that distinction goes to the Big East, which boasts a winning percentage of .667.

One of the two will improve its all-time mark on Monday night in Albuquerque, New Mexico when No. 4 seed Vanderbilt faces No. 5 seed West Virginia in the second round of the Big Dance. The winner gets a trip to Spokane, Wash., to play in the Sweet Sixteen, while the loser's season is over.

While the two schools haven't played since 1987, when Vanderbilt won a regular season contest 92-75 against the Mountaineers (then a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference), both teams have some idea of what they can expect.

"I know when our coaches were talking to us they kept comparing [WVU] players to players that we've seen from the SEC to give us an idea of what they might be like," said junior forward Christina Wirth.

Vanderbilt (24-8, 12-4 SEC), a charter member of the 75-year-old Southeastern Conference, finished third in the conference this year with a school record 11 regular season SEC wins. West Virginia (25-7, 12-4 Big East), which moved up from the A10 to the Big East Conference after the 1994-95 season, also finished third in its league.

Given the Mountaineers' conference, the Commodores know they are going up against a top-tier opponent.

"They have a really strong post player that plays inside," Wirth said. "They have a good high-low game with her. They have some smart guards who can shoot from the floor, so it's going to be a team effort to stop them."

Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb also thought the heavyweight conferences would help in preparation for her team.

"I think the biggest similarity is our conferences," she said. "Playing in the SEC we see a lot of teams similar to West Virginia. I know they've probably seen some teams similar to us. The Big East is a large conference with a lot of different types of teams and we've watched a lot of film of them against a lot of different types of teams. The biggest similarity is that they are a high-level Big East Team and we are a high-level SEC team."

If the Commodores have one advantage heading in, it may be that they were firing on all cylinders and able to rest their starters in Saturday's 75-47 victory over No. 13 seed Montana. Meanwhile WVU had to hold it's breath as No. 12 seed New Mexico, playing on it's home court in front of more than 10,000 fans, had two shots in the final seconds of a one-point Mountaineer victory.

"We feel real fortunate to be here," said WVU Head Coach Mike Carey. "We had a tough game last night and our girls are a little bit tired, but we have to refocus. We are playing a very good Vanderbilt basketball team. Sure you would like to see them play 40 minutes, but that didn't happen. We just need to come out and play and match their intensity."

The close game against New Mexico draws extra attention in this mile-high environment, where the altitude is a constant concern - if not physically wearing down players, than as a mental distraction.

"I don't feel (the altitude) has been an issue," Balcomb said. "Our effort was very good and our intensity was very good. I did not see us tire the way I thought we might have. Our players are well conditioned right now and I didn't see anything different than our other games."

Carey said his team just needs to focus on the task at hand.

"I don't think it's the altitude as much as it is that we need to recover and stay focused," he said. "It's been no more than recovering and getting our legs."

In any case, Vanderbilt certainly isn't going to take the Mountaineers lightly just because they were living on the edge against UNM.

"We're in the NCAA tournament, so I feel like everyone's going to be up no matter what," said junior guard Jennifer Risper. "It doesn't matter if you played close one game or you know we had a game like we had. I think they are going to come ready to play just like every single team you play."



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