Just The Facts With Larry Fleisher

The St. John’s women’s basketball team is trying out there on the court and in practice. There isn’t any denying that fact. But it falls short often especially against elite teams like Notre Dame and Connecticut.

St. John’s latest defeat, a 84-49 loss to Notre Dame, demonstrated the differences between the Red Storm and the elite teams when it comes to women’s basketball.

If SJU is competitive and keeps a game like this close, it seems like a moral victory. At Notre Dame moral victories are not in the vocabulary, victories on the court are expected.

Every one knows that there is no tradition associated with women’s basketball. But by playing in a basketball hotbed such as New York, it can be done. Of course that is easier said than done. The coaching staff can’t force players to come here, but they can give them a reason to consider SJU.

Prior to joining the Big East, the Fighting Irish didn’t exactly have a women’s basketball tradition. When Head Coach Muffet McGraw started there in 1987-1988, they toiled in obscurity in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (MCC). They still managed to win 20 games and make postseason tournaments.

Joining the Big East helped to propel the Irish into the national spotlight. “At some point you get a lucky break,” said McGraw. “We got Beth Morgan who was an Indiana player, and she came to Notre Dame and we ended up going to the Final Four her senior year in 1997. From there you establish a tradition and expectation level of your team.”

Morgan is the school’s all-time leading scorer. Playing form 1993-1997 she scored 2,322 points.

Being able to recruit good players is tough enough, but without a foundation, it’s even harder. For Notre Dame, Morgan was that foundation that led to players such as Ruth Riley coming there.

“I think good players want to play somewhere, where they have a chance to compete for a national championship,” said McGraw.

It takes time to build a tradition, but it has to start somewhere. The Big East is one of the best conferences for women’s basketball. Both Notre Dame (14-0) and Connecticut (12-0) are undefeated. The Huskies are ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 and the Irish are No 3.

Talent is not the only difference between SJU and schools such as Notre Dame. When people refer to SJU athletics, men’s basketball comes to mind and other teams such as women’s basketball are overlooked.

At Notre Dame football and men’s basketball are the main sports being emphasized, but the women’s basketball team doesn’t get pushed behind the limelight. Of course winning comes with that.

“We definitely have great support in our community and as well as the university community,” said McGraw. “When you win people finally get interested, but it took us a long time to get there.”

While it took the Fighting Irish a long time to get to where they are, it will probably be a long time for them among the elite. One difference McGraw has noticed is the reaction of the team to the polls.

“We’ve gone from a whole different experience from running for the paper and going oh we got three votes to now not even looking at the polls,” McGraw said “We went from hoping to get in the tournament to expecting a bid.” Maybe sometime that can happen here at St. John’s.

A good first step would be to be able to recruit players from New York. Shammeka Stevens, who currently is ineligible, is a good start. She was a top player in the public schools. If Darcel Estep can recruit more talent from New York, then she might have something going here.

Until that happens, SJU will be struggling to remain competitive instead of expecting to win. Maybe someday that can become a reality. Trying only gets a team so far, the talent is the bottom line in any sport.