Women's Basketball: New Coach Answers the Big Question

Former UConn, WNBA standout discusses the state of women’s hoops

By Matthew Stoss

New GW coach Jennifer Rizzotti can answer—or at least address with authority—the biggest ongoing debate in women’s college basketball: Is the University of Connecticut’s dominance good for the sport?

Ms. Rizzotti, a former UConn point guard and one of the founding members of the WNBA, says definitively that, yes, the Huskies, 11-0 in national championship games since 1995 under coach Geno Auriemma, are good for women’s hoops, which has historically been top-heavy and upset-starved.

“I think they’re great for women’s basketball because they play the way you’re supposed to play,” says Ms. Rizzotti, who arrived this spring to replace Jonathan Tsipis, who left to coach the University of Wisconsin. “Any coach that watches them—it’s a chance to learn; it’s a chance to get better. So how is that not better for the rest of us? And Geno opens his practices. Any coach can go up there and watch their workouts, watch how they do things. He doesn’t hide it. He’s not secretive. He doesn’t have a magic formula. He is willing to share. So how is that not good for the game, if you’re trying to get better as a coach?”

The 42-year-old Ms. Rizzotti is a 17-year coaching veteran, influenced by Mr. Auriemma, who, she says, she consults more on the handling of players than anything related to running her franken-version of the Princeton offense. She took the University of Hartford to six NCAA tournaments—its only trips in program history—where she won two games out of the America East Conference, a lower-tier Division I league that hasn’t ever sent more than two teams to the NCAAs. It’s sent just one every season since 2009-10 when Ms. Rizzotti’s Hartford squad received an at-large bid.

Currently: GW Women's Basketball CoachFormerly: Hartford women's basketball coachResume Highlights: 1995 national champion, AP National Player of the Year, two-time WNBA champion, coached Hartford to six NCAA tournament appearances

At GW, Ms. Rizzotti says, she’s better positioned to make a run in the NCAA tournament thanks to membership in a stronger league. The Atlantic 10, won by GW the past two years, got three NCAA bids in 2015-16. The A-10 ranked seventh out of 32 D-I conferences last season, according to Real Time RPI. The America East was 16th.

“One of the things I’ve wanted to do [at Hartford] that I couldn’t was go to a Sweet 16,” Ms. Rizzotti says. “... I’m not saying it’ll ever be easy because it’s hard to be one of the last teams playing. … I’ve got to do a great coaching job, but I have the players [at GW] that can get to that level, and that’s what I’ve told the team.”

At UConn, Ms. Rizzotti led the Huskies in 1995 to their first national title. That year, she was named The Associated Press National Player of the Year on a team that also featured women’s hoops great Rebecca Lobo. Ms. Rizzotti left UConn as its all-time assists leader.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Rizzotti says she gets the UConn question a lot. But she understands why. As women’s basketball aristocracy and a member of the UConn team that started it all, she’s a logical person to ask. And unlike a lot of people, she’s qualified to answer.

“It’s funny because I feel like the people that sometimes comment on whether or not UConn is good or bad—and most of the time, they say it’s bad—are people who would never watch women’s basketball otherwise,” says Ms. Rizzotti, who won WNBA championships in 1999 and 2000 as a member of the now-defunct Houston Comets. “So any time you have somebody who isn’t typically talking about women’s basketball in the media that, all of a sudden, wants to start talking about how UConn is bad for women’s basketball or Geno is whatever, now you’ve got another set of people paying attention to our game.

Preferred offense: a modified PrincetonPreferred defense: man-to-manFirst became a head coach at age 24

“Whether [the debate is] good or bad, I don’t know. I just feel like we’re always fighting for publicity; we’re always fighting for recognition, and people don’t like that they’re the team that gets it more than everybody else. But they’re getting it. And if they weren’t good, people might not be paying attention at all.”

The criticism of UConn’s juggernaut—the Huskies have gone undefeated six times and once won a record 90 games in a row—is that it hurts competitive balance, which has long been a problem in women’s basketball. Since the women’s NCAA tournament started in 1982, UConn and fellow traditional power Tennessee combined have won 19 of 35 national championships. No other school has won more than two.

“I think that women’s basketball fans would like to see there be more parity,” Ms. Rizzotti says. “But if you’re talking about transcending sports fans and having people actually pay attention to women’s basketball, [UConn is] the only one who has gotten people to do that.”

There is more parity now, Ms. Rizzotti says, because of better coaching at youth levels and increased athletic opportunities for women. And while brand-name teams still monopolize star recruits, there are more good and, sometimes, even great players available for everyone else. Jonquel Jones, now a member of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, was a first-round draft pick out of GW.

In 2016-17, the Colonials return two of their top three scorers—6-2 forward Caira Washington (13.2 points per game) and 5-9 guard Hannah Schaible (10.4 ppg)—but lost five seniors off the 2015-16 team, and over the next two seasons, will lose 11 more. Ms. Rizzotti, who rotates as many as 10 players and, at the time of the interview had seen her new team only on film, says she’ll be recruiting every position, looking for balanced players who can do a little bit of everything.

“They’re coming to us as better athletes,” Ms. Rizzotti says of high school players. “And so there are just more possibilities that you can get, like the men do. There are so many studs that fall through the cracks and go to a smaller school and then they grow into their game.”