Gophers women’s basketball: The glass slipper really fits

In the more top-heavy women’s game, this seventh-seed’s trip has been fantastic.

by Aaron Blake

It’s now April, and any more mention of the word “Cinderella” is likely to induce vomiting.

Grab a bucket – she’s sticking around past midnight, dancing the night away.

“Cinderella” is, in fact, the most overused word in the entire month of March. It’s usually used to describe a double-digit seed in an NCAA basketball tournament that knocks off one or two high seeds en route to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.

That’s not a Cinderella. Minnesota’s women’s basketball team is a Cinderella.

And for several reasons.

First, the field in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament is more top-heavy than the men’s bracket – the quality of the teams becomes watered down after the third or fourth seed in each region.

The statistics speak for themselves. In the 22 years since the inception of the women’s tournament in 1982 and prior to this season, only five teams seeded below fourth have advanced to the Final Four. In that same time period, 13 men’s teams seeded five or higher have gotten that far.

Also, in each of the last two years, the women’s Final Four has included three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed. First seeds have won 17 of the 22 national titles, and nobody seeded below third has ever gone all the way.

Minnesota is the first-ever seventh seed to be dancing on the last weekend of the season, and only two teams seeded lower have ever been there.

Second, a Cinderella is not a 10th seed who catches a Kansas or a UConn off-guard and ekes its way into the Sweet 16, only to lose by 20 points once it gets there.

The men’s bracket included eighth-seed UAB and 10th seed Nevada in the Sweet 16 and

seventh-seed Xavier and

eighth-seed Alabama in the

Elite Eight.

But only Xavier beat two top-four seeds (second-seed Mississippi State and third-seed Texas), and none beat three like Minnesota’s women’s team did.

The Gophers destroyed a second seed (Kansas State), handled a third seed (Boston College) and led almost the entire game against a first seed (Duke) to get to where they’re at – a place Cinderellas don’t often venture.

Third, the real Cinderella story doesn’t begin when the invitation to the ball arrives at her house; the tale includes a lifetime of abuse for the title character.

The Gophers’ eight total Big Ten wins in the six years before the 2001-02 season translates to a history of beatings from their ugly stepsisters in the Big Ten, and the sheer stealth with which the program rose from the depths of college basketball is a fairy tale in itself.

Cinderellas don’t emerge every year, and the media is often overzealous in proclaiming a lower seed to be the next turn-of-the-century Gonzaga.

The Gophers aren’t Gonzaga – they come from a big school and they aren’t a double-digit seed – but they are donning their own version of the glass slippers at this year’s national tournament.

Beginning Sunday, they will continue to dance with the princes of women’s college basketball.

In this story, however, the happy ending comes by leaving the prince behind.