KANSAS CITY, Mo.-- Louisiana Tech women's basketball coach Leon Barmore is, by nature, a patient, thoughtful man, not easily given to hyperbole and bluster.
So when talk began spreading throughout the season that this year's Tennessee team might be the greatest ever, Barmore took a wait-and-see attitude.
"I knew that the best thing we had was transition offense, and I knew at the same time it was the very thing that I couldn't afford to do against Tennessee. So I was caught where there really wasn't an answer for this team," Barmore said. "We could have tried to set it up and slow it down and do some of those things, but that wouldn't work for us, either. We got beat by the best basketball team I've personally ever seen."
But are the Lady Vols, one of three NCAA teams to finish a season unbeaten, really the best ever? The evidence suggests yes.
In winning an unprecedented third straight NCAA title -- Immaculata and Delta State each won three consecutive titles when the now-defunct Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was in operation -- Tennessee staked a claim for immortality.
The Lady Vols, who were ranked No. 1 all season, beat opponents by an average of 30.1 points and defeated ranked opponents by 25.1. In the Southeastern Conference, the nation's toughest, the Tennessee victory margin was 31.6 per game, including a 59-point win over then-No. 17 Georgia and a 61-point beating of No. 14 Vanderbilt in the SEC semifinal.
The Lady Vols only faced three games in which a foe finished within 10 points -- two against Alabama and one against North Carolina in the Mideast Regional final.
Most impressively, Tennessee beat its NCAA tournament opponents by an average of 24.6 points, a better margin than the other two unbeaten teams, the 1986 Texas squad (20.2) and the 1995 Connecticut team (24.0), against a decidedly tougher schedule than either of those two played.
"I think they [Lady Vols] are clearly the best team that has ever played," said Nancy Lieberman-Cline, a three-time All-American at Old Dominion in the late 1970s and coach/general manager of the new Detroit Shock of the Women's NBA.
"They are under a microscope, and then there's the schedule, the travel and all the other talent that's out there. I think Tennessee has proven with their athletes and the way they play, that they're setting the tone for the future of the game."
For her part, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose six NCAA titles place her behind only former UCLA men's coach John Wooden, who won 10 championships, won't play "the greatest" game, saying only that this year's team is the quickest and best defensive and transition team she has coached in 24 years.
"I can also tell you it's a team unlike any that I've ever coached in terms of their competitiveness and their will to win and also their willingness to prepare to win," Summitt said after Sunday's game. "A lot of players say they want to win. But with this team, their preparation was tremendous. As far as all those coaches out there that coach a lot of great teams, this one is a different style. But I like this style, probably best of any I've seen."
Indeed, the Lady Vols, who won more games in the 1997-98 season than any other NCAA basketball team -- male or female -- are likely the most athletic team the game has ever seen.
"These are great athletes, and unless you are on the court playing against them, you can't appreciate how quickly they get the ball down the floor and how quickly they do things that make them champions," said Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, after Tennessee beat the Scarlet Knights, 92-60, in the Mideast semifinals.
The athleticism starts with the "Three Meeks" -- junior forward Chamique Holdsclaw, and freshmen Tamika Catchings, a forward, and guard Semeka Randall. With Holdsclaw, the national Player of the Year, and Catchings, the national Freshman of the Year, at the head of the Tennessee press, and Randall, a gifted defender, the Lady Vols possess a defense that grabbed at least 10 steals in all but four of their 39 games and forced more turnovers than the offense gave up in all 39 contests.
Offensively, the Lady Vols have five players -- Holdsclaw, Catchings, Randall, point guard Kellie Jolly and freshman guard Kristen Clement -- capable of serving as principal ball-handler. With that versatility, the Tennessee team is a prototype of where the women's game is evolving.
"You'll always have the true centers and forwards and point guards, per se, but you'll see more and more players who are going to have to be able to play different positions," said Ann Meyers, an ESPN and NBC analyst and four-time All-American at UCLA.
"Most women who come to this level will have played different positions, if they grew up playing against guys. The big kids like Holdsclaw, Catchings and Randall play outside with guys. They're not playing inside, and if you're banging, you'd better be pretty good catching the ball because you're playing against quickness and strength. You're having to handle the ball."
Tennessee might be the best women's team ever, having won three consecutive NCAA titles:
Season ... W-L ... Title game
'95-96 .. 32-4 ... Def. Ga., 83-65
'96-97 .. 29-10 .. Def. ODU, 68-59
'97-98 .. 39-0 ... Def. La. Tech, 93-75
Pub Date: 3/31/98