Thursday, November 24, 2005

Women's tournament promises show-stopper plays

ST. THOMAS - It is said that behind every great men's college basketball tournament there is an even greater women's tournament.

OK, so maybe you've never heard that particular axiom. But now that you have, believe it, because undeniable proof is on the way starting tonight.

On the heels of the most exciting and competitive men's Paradise Jam to date, eight Division I women's college basketball teams descend on St. Thomas for a tournament that has all the ingredients to become the gold standard against which every women's Paradise Jam to come will be measured.

Five NCAA Tournament teams from last season, including four teams ranked among the Top 12 in the nation this season, lead a stacked field for the 2005 Paradise Jam that will take place over the next three days at the University of the Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center. The teams are divided into two divisions, and a champion will be named from each.

Gonzaga, Maryland, Michigan State and Tennessee will tangle in the round-robin St. John Division. The bracketed St. Thomas Division features Alabama, Minnesota, Nevada and Virginia. The tournament culminates Saturday with consolation and championship games in the St. Thomas Division and the final two matchups of the St. John Division.

"This is the strongest field assembled in the past couple years anywhere, except, of course, in the Final Four," Paradise Jam executive director Nels Hawkinson said. "And we have some teams here that could end up in the Final Four this year."

Hawkinson named Minnesota, Maryland, Tennessee and Michigan State as possible national semifinalists. All four were NCAA Tournament teams in 2004-05, and Tennessee and Michigan State both reached the Final Four.

Historically, Paradise Jam has attracted some of the nations' elite teams since its inception as a four-team women's tournament in 2000. All four teams that first year - LSU, Southwest Missouri State, Penn State and Texas Tech - were ranked in the Top 25. Since then, the tourney has continued to attract some of the most desirable women's programs in college basketball. Of the teams currently ranked by the Associated Press, 11 have now appeared at Paradise Jam, and at least two others - tradition-rich Connecticut and up-and-coming Temple - have committed to attend the tournament within the next two years.

"I think it's the fact the Paradise Jam has a really great reputation," Hawkinson said on the success. "The tournament is extremely efficient, well organized - and coaches love that. Everybody has a secret sauce, and ours isn't really a secret as much as it is just staying consistent."

There is quite a bit of luck involved with assembling a field as prestigious as this year's collection. With schools signing contracts one or two years before they actually appear in the tournament, it is difficult for organizers to know how good a team will be by the time they finally get to the Virgin Islands. But the stars have aligned for Paradise Jam in 2005 with the sort of elite competition that is rarely seen.

Of course, the chances of having an outstanding tournament increase exponentially when you sign a team like Tennessee.

"You know when you bring in a team like Tennessee that they're almost always going to get to the Final Four," Hawkinson said. "There are other teams that you know will challenge to get there. Maryland is one of those teams, Michigan State of course and Virginia's been there forever."

Tennessee and head coach Pat Summit have come to epitomize winning. Summit last season became the all-time winningest coach in NCAA history, now standing in first place on the all-time list with 884 coaching victories in 31-plus seasons at the helm.

The Lady Vols are currently ranked No.1 in the USA Today-ESPN Coaches' poll and No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. They become only the second team to enter Paradise Jam with a first in the nation in at least one major poll. Duke was the nation's No. 1 team when they won the Paradise Jam title in 2002.

Tennessee has advanced to the Final Four 20 times in the past 29 years and has won six national championships under Summitt, but last year was not one of those championship seasons. The Lady Vols have Michigan State to blame for that. The Spartans knocked off Tennessee in their Final Four matchup, stunning the Lady Vols with a come-from-behind 68-64 win.

The teams meet again at 9:30 tonight in a much-hyped rematch that will be nationally televised. Subplots abound, not the least of which will be the revenge factor for Tennessee. The arena is expected to be packed for that premiere matchup, and a gaggle of decked-out youngsters is guaranteed with tournament organizer Basketball Travelers Inc. donating more than 700 tickets to students at local schools.

And the Virgin Islands fans won't be the only interested party. A long list of VIPs will be on-hand, including legendary U.S. Olympic Team coach Billie Moore and head coaches from several WNBA teams.

Television coverage of the games, originally scheduled to be broadcast only on cable network Fox College Sports, has expanded to include at least five regional markets of Fox Sports Net and an additional pick-up of the preceding Maryland vs. Gonzaga game by Comcast's Mid-Atlantic region - which includes the Baltimore and Washington D.C. markets.

Those additional markets could increase the tournament's television exposure to a potential audience of more than 100 million homes across the country, according to Hawkinson.

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