What to watch: Big players evolve in women's game

There's been a growth spurt in women's basketball.

Fans watching the NCAA women's tournament will see more versatile 6-foot-3 or taller players than ever, a couple playing above the rim and plenty facing the basket with guard skills — their games patterned more after LeBron than Kareem.

"Back in the day, if you were a big person, you were a back-to-the-basket kind of player," says Anne Donovan, a 6-8 force who won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988 and was the 1983 college player of the year at Old Dominion. "It was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the men's game, and the women's game had the same style players.

"Our game has evolved like the men, where we're not back-to-the-basket for post players any more. I think you started seeing that evolution with (6-5) Lisa Leslie and it's just continued."

Has it ever.

Coaches say the increasing popularity of the women's game has resulted in more girls playing at an early age, and these players are more skilled. Though the game is growing, the average woman isn't — she still stands about 5-4. Women on average have grown just eight-10ths of an inch since the early 1960s, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Still, the major conferences feature a host of athletic, versatile players. National championship contenders like Tennessee and Stanford enter the NCAA tournament with the size of many men's teams in smaller conferences. Even their point guards are 6-footers.

A look at rosters from the six major conferences — Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Pacific-10 — from the mid-1990s shows that the number of 6-3 or taller players has nearly doubled in some cases.

And their roles have grown along with their stature.

What Leslie started, 6-4 Candace Parker took to another level as a do-it-all forward/guard/center at Tennessee, knocking down 3-pointers, dunking off the dribble.

Now there is Brittany Griner, Baylor's towering 6-8 freshman, who has gained YouTube fame with her dunks and blocks. Stanford's 6-4 Kayla Pedersen leads one of the tournament's top contenders in scoring and rebounding, but has also drilled 49 3-pointers in 31 games and is second on the team with 86 assists.

This year's Lady Vols features 12 players 5-10 or taller, topping out with 6-6 center Kelley Cain.

"Just the mobility of the post players throughout the country, it's amazing to me, compared to let's say 10 years ago," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt says. "Being out recruiting and seeing some of these young players, there's some post players out there that could step in and play at the college level."

The long list of stars 6-3 or above also includes UConn's Tina Charles — whose team has won 72 straight — Ohio State's 6-4 Jantel Lavender and the other half of Stanford's dominant frontcourt, 6-4 Jayne Appel.

There are still some back-to-the-basket players like Donovan, now coach of the WNBA's New York Liberty. But just like in the men's game, more of the bigs in the women's game are slashers, with quick moves, crossover dribbles and showtime passes.

"You're seeing more kids 6-3, 6-4, 6-5. You're seeing them in all dimensions," said Kim Mulkey, Griner's coach at Baylor. "You're seeing them broad and then you're seeing them long and athletic. You're seeing a variety.

"It's because women's basketball is a very visible sport at the collegiate level. Kids are seeing it at a young age and they start playing bitty basketball, AAU basketball and select basketball. There are just more of them involved."

The athletic post players aren't only in major conferences — or even in the NCAA tournament.

Consider Delaware's 6-5 Elena Delle Donne, who turned down a chance to play at Connecticut and stayed closer to home with the Blue Hens. The freshman was the nation's No. 2 scorer this season while recording more 3s (62) than blocks (60).

ACC champion Duke has won with a frontcourt that plays mostly with their backs to the basket — 6-4 Krystal Thomas and 6-5 freshman Allison Vernerey.

Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie says tall players are playing more positions.

"Sometimes it's hard to find the traditional post because so many post players want to step out and shoot the 3," she says. "It's always exciting to see players who can play with their back to the basket. It makes the game exciting. I think it makes the game more diverse."

The ACC is loaded with talented bigs. The league is tops among the major conferences with 35 players — including 14 starters — 6-3 or taller. There were half as many starters and just 20 ACC players standing that tall in the 1999-2000 season, according to STATS, LLC.

The Big 12 has gone from 13 to 24 players at least 6-3 since 1996. The tallest then was 6-7 Devon Magness of Oklahoma State. Now there are three players in the conference at least 6-7.

The Big Ten has 6-9 Allyssa DeHaan of Michigan State.

Boston College likely has the ACC's top low-post combination of Carolyn Swords and Stefanie Murphy, who are averaging a combined 26.1 points and 15.5 rebounds. Murphy appreciates the diverse roles played these days by post players.

"I definitely think that we've become more involved," Murphy says. "We're being looked to as scorers instead of just people to grab the boards and put the ball back in the hole."

Griner has followed in the footsteps of players like Tennessee's Parker and Sylvia Fowles of LSU — who both brought another dimension to the post position with their tremendous athleticism and basketball skills.

Griner was second nationally in blocked shots (6.0 per game) and led the nation with three triple-doubles. Griner joined Parker as the only women's players to dunk more than once in a game during a 99-18 rout of Texas State. She also has a major impact on the other end.

"She stops shots. She alters shots," Mulkey says. "And she plays above the rim. I've been doing this since I was 14 years old. I've played with some of the greatest players to ever play this game. But I can honestly say she's the first one I've ever been around that you can say plays above the rim."

Auburn's Nell Fortner pointed out teams like No. 4 seed Kentucky that have thrived with comparatively undersized teams.

But there are an abundance of big players in the high school ranks, and competition is intense for their services.

"You're looking at 6-foot point guards," Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. "You're just looking at kids that are bigger and they're bigger at their position."

Auburn has been led by polar opposites in the paint the past two seasons, from the willowy and versatile All-American DeWanna Bonner, now playing in the WNBA with the Phoenix Mercury, to the beefy 6-7 KeKe Carrier.

Because of her size, there may not be a player in the tournament more aptly named than Carrier.

Maybe girth is the next step in the evolution of women's post players?

"I don't see another player on the horizon in the next few years that is like KeKe," Fortner said.

Maybe not yet, but perhaps eventually.


AP Sports Writers Joedy McCreary in Raleih, N.C., and Eric Olson in Kansas City, Kan., contributed to this report.