Updated: March 3, 2014, 2:51 AM ET

One title down, one to go for Chattanooga

By Graham Hays | espnW.com

Taylor HallCourtesy Chattanooga AthleticsJim Foster calls Taylor Hall "as good an all-around basketball player" as he has coached in 36 years.

The past two and a half months proved beyond any doubt that no team is better equipped or more deserves to represent the Southern Conference in the NCAA tournament than Chattanooga.

Under the direction of one of the most recognizable coaching names in women's basketball and following the lead of a player who is one of the game's best-kept secrets, Chattanooga lapped the field in its own conference. Sunday's 77-56 win against UNC Greensboro completed an 18-0 conference record and a regular-season conference title long since clinched, the first at the school for Hall of Fame coach Jim Foster and the second in a row for senior Taylor Hall.

Now three days in Asheville, N.C., will decide whether all of that means anything.

"I think for us the conference tournament is the more important title because that's our only ticket to the [NCAA] tournament," Hall said this weekend. "So I guess that comes into play. But we do like to get things done throughout the season as well. It just comes down to those games in the tournament that we have to win to move on."

Something isn't right with that equation.

A banner earned over months should mean more than one settled over days. In many of the tournaments we will watch over the next two weeks, that's an annoyance. Notre Dame, South Carolina, Stanford and others earned conference championships over a long grind, but they are going to the NCAA tournament no matter what happens in the days ahead. After finishing six games ahead of its closest competitor in the league, Chattanooga might well still need the NCAA tournament automatic bid attached to the conference tournament.

From America East to the Summit League, the same is true in more conferences than not.

The result, as Foster described it in calling on an old John Wooden adage, is an overemphasis on the final game.

"I think that's grossly unfair to a team a such as this," Foster said. "It's grossly unfair to a lot of teams because it is much, much harder to win a regular-season championship than it is a conference tournament. You have to do it over a long period of time -- 18 games is a long period of time. Months, it's months of preparation.

"Because we live in such a media-driven society, the emphasis on March Madness, etc., has taken away something from student-athletes that never should have been taken away from them."

In Chattanooga's case, a loss in Asheville would inevitably take away something from what has been an impressive display of continuity amidst a changing world. Like many fans, Hall and her teammates were caught off guard when Wes Moore left the school to take the head coaching position at NC State after the 2012-13 season. Not that most begrudged him the opportunity, one he has done a remarkable job with in his first season, but after 15 seasons and nine NCAA tournament appearances with Chattanooga, he seemed like a lifer at the helm of a mid-major dynasty.

Jim Foster
Courtesy Chattanooga AthleticsJim Foster, whose Lady Mocs won the SoCon by six games, thinks teams should be better rewarded for regular-season championships.

Enter Foster, who was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame shortly after taking the job in Chattanooga following 11 seasons at Ohio State and more than 30 in the sport. He tinkered with what had worked previously. He installed a read-and-react offense that gave players more freedom on the court. A few games into the new season he handed the starting point guard job to freshman Chelsey Shumpert. But most importantly, he turned Hall loose.

"I'm definitely more involved with the offense," Hall said. "I'm up front usually with the point guard and I have the ball in my hands quite a bit, and that's different for me. He allows me to make my own decisions and just go with the flow of the game, and I think I play better that way, just more relaxed."

At various times this season, Foster has described Hall as the first "great passing frontcourt player" in his career, dropping names such as Dave DeBusschere and Larry Bird as reference points, and "as good an all-around basketball player" as he has coached in 36 years. She leads the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals and ranks in the top five in the conference in all five categories (she's in the top 10 in blocks, just for good measure).

Like in-state counterpart Middle Tennessee's Ebony Rowe, Hall -- who first made a national impression with 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks in a win against Tennessee a season ago -- will finish her career with a great deal more on her résumé than many of those recruited ahead of her by bigger programs.

"I have more than one player that should be playing at a higher level," Foster said. "I think the most common mistake made in recruiting is everybody falls in love with what they see. They don't have a sense of what the player could be."

Asked who else fit the description, the coach said he would keep that to himself, but it isn't a stretch to think freshman Jasmine Joyner is among them. Slow to find a place in the rotation earlier in the season, she averaged 3.5 blocks per game in increased February minutes.

"She is an amazingly quick study," Foster said. "She is a very intelligent basketball player. The more she is out there the more she grows as a basketball player because that intelligence becomes wisdom with experience."

Such are the challenges of a season, to manage the present and build for the future all at the same time.

Chattanooga is better now than it was in November because of the defensive presence Joyner offers, the minutes Shumpert has under her belt and a dozen other things. It would be an NCAA tournament threat because of those things and because of Hall. If it gets to the real tournament.

"The conference tournaments are nothing, in the case of women's basketball, nothing but opportunity to lose money," Foster said.

And perhaps opportunities to lose sight of the teams that deserve better.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

Green Bay closing in on another title

Mehryn KrakerCourtesy of Green Bay Athletics Mehryn Kraker's 19 points Thursday gave Green Bay sole possession of first place.

If you need a refresher on what the world looked like the last time Green Bay didn't win at least a share of its conference regular-season title, all you have to do is Google the information.

You couldn't do that at the time, of course. Two Stanford students didn't incorporate Google until several months after the 1997-98 basketball season. So it is for the sport's most enduring dynasty, even one that rules a modest empire.

This was the season the rest of the Horizon League was supposed to get even. Instead, with two rounds left in the regular season, those teams find themselves in the familiar position of struggling to stay even with the Phoenix.

With an overtime road win this past Thursday at Wright State, Green Bay swept the season series against one of its challengers and pushed that team out of a tie atop the standings (also part of the three-way tie after it had swept Green Bay, Youngstown State lost twice over the weekend and dropped to third). Green Bay needs to win one of its final two games at home to clinch a share of a 16th consecutive title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, in which the top seed hosts the final two rounds. Win both, or if Wright State loses, and it's an outright title.

All of this with a starting lineup in Saturday's game at Valparaiso that featured one true freshman, two redshirt freshmen and one sophomore who played just 105 minutes a season ago and missed substantial time with an injury. Green Bay began this season without four starters and 74 percent of the points that fueled last season's 29-3 record.

John Calipari is supposed to maintain a power with that kind of turnover. Mid-major teams are supposed to flounder.

In coach Kevin Borseth's mind, a fair question in the preseason was how the team would win even half its games.

"But it really wasn't up to me," Borseth said. "It was up to them. And those kids said that they didn't want this to fall on their watch. They fight."

Kaili Lukan
Courtesy of Green Bay AthleticsSophomore Kaili Lukan played just 105 minutes as a freshman but leads Green Bay in scoring (12.1 ppg) this season.

The weekend road swing was in some ways the season condensed into a 48-hour window. Against a good Wright State team that beat NC State earlier this season and might have the league's best player in Kim Demmings, Green Bay struggled and won. Against a Valparaiso team with just four wins all season, Green Bay struggled and won.

Such is life with young talent. Or at least such is life with young talent for this program.

Down a point with less than three minutes to play at Valparaiso, Kaili Lukan hit a 3-pointer that gave Green Bay the lead. Still up three points with a little more than 20 seconds remaining, Mehryn Kraker hit another 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down to all but seal the win. Never mind that to that moment, the Phoenix had hit just 6-of-30 attempts from the 3-point line, only two of them by anyone other than Tesha Buck. A pair of seniors, Breannah Ranger and Sam Zastrow, provided key contributions in the Wright State win. Redshirt junior Megan Lukan, Kaili's older sister, is a steady hand at point guard. But Kaili, Kraker and Buck combined for 41 points against Wright State and 34 against Valparaiso, more than half of the team's total points for the trip. All are essentially doing this for the first time.

"I'm just not a very patient person; the kids have kind of seen that," Borseth said. "I told them, 'You guys are winning games, so you've increased my expectation level for you guys being champions. So if I get a little upset at times, you've given me that. You've made me do that.'"

The first of the championships in the current streak came in Borseth's first season, when he inherited a star player in Chari Nordgaard from coach Carol Hammerle, who started the program and forged its championship credentials. Off the cuff after the Valparaiso game, Borseth recalled the streaks and scores of that 1998-99 season in almost flawless detail, so his memory can probably be trusted when he recalled Nordgaard saying it was the best team she had ever been on -- not necessarily in the sense of the most talented but the most committed to a common cause. There was no jealousy if she took most of the shots. Every player had a role, that was just hers.

Nordgaard is long gone. Gone, too, are Nicole Soulis, Kayla Tetschlag, Julie Wojta, Adrian Ritchie and others who came and went without ever finishing second. Even Borseth left and returned. Times change. Rosters change. Google happens. But kids pulled largely from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario keep playing roles and winning titles.

If it isn't going to stop now, you start to wonder if it ever will.

"Every day in practice we have to come to fight and every game we have to come to fight," Kaili Lukan said. "We want to be that 16th team. But it's not handed to us. We have to fight and we have to work together."


Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.