The “Elite” in the Elite Eight carries more meaning than a nifty saying.
Geno Auriemma, Tara VanDerveer, Pat Summitt, Muffet McGraw and Leon Barmore are certainly elite when it comes to their Elite Eight history. They have combined for 68 victories in the Elite Eight round.
Others are trying to make the climb to that level in a 64-team NCAA Tournament field unlike the days of 32-team brackets when Auriemma, VanDerveer, Summitt and Barmore were experiencing March Madness for the first time in the early 1980s.
The NCAA Tournament for women did not start until the 1981-82 season after the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) held its own postseason. The NCAA Tournament began with 32 teams and did not reach 64 until the 1993-94 season, well into the careers of Auriemma, VanDerveer, Summitt and Barmore. McGraw’s first Elite Elite with Notre Dame was in 1996-97 in her fourth NCAA Tournament appearance.
Dawn Staley endured nine NCAA tournament appearances at Temple and South Carolina before she reached her first Elite Eight in 2013-14.
“There are too many great teams and great programs here to think you can just flip a switch and be here,” Staley said Sunday after she coached South Carolina to the Elite Eight for the fourth time with a 76-65 win over Georgia Tech.
Louisville’s Jeff Walz coached the Cardinals to the Elite Eight in his second NCAA tournament in 2008-09.
He is in the Elite Eight for the sixth time in his 14th season at Louisville after the Cardinals defeated Oregon 60-42 on Sunday.
Half of his NCAA Tournament appearances have included advancing to the Elite Eight, where he has gone three straight times after a three-year span of not advancing past the Sweet 16.
“It’s not easy to get to this game,” Walz said Sunday. “It takes a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of dedication.”
Staley could not get Temple past the second round in six NCAA Tournament appearances before her hire at South Carolina in 2008. After not advancing to the NCAA Tournament in her first three years with the Gamecocks, she finally made it that far and lost twice in the Sweet 16 and once in the second round.
Staley finally reached her first Elite Eight in her 15th season as a head coach. She was 44.
By contrast, Adia Barnes is also 44 and she has advanced to the Elite Eight in her first NCAA Tournament as Arizona’s head coach.
Although it was a faster trek than Staley, Barnes did not flip a switch. She took over a program that had a losing season in 10 of the 11 years before her hire in 2016 and she was 20-40 in her first two seasons.
“We’re not satisfied with going to the Elite Eight,” said the always eager Barnes after No. 3 seed Arizona beat No. 2 Texas A&M 74-59 on Saturday in the Wildcats’ first Sweet 16 in 23 years.
“This is unchartered territory, so we have nothing to lose. No one in the country expected us to be in the Elite Eight.”
Indiana coach Teri Moren, whose team plays Arizona in the Elite Eight on Monday at San Antonio, is also leading a program that has never advanced this far.
Moren is in her 11th season at the NCAA Division I level (four years at Indiana State and seventh at Indiana). This is her third trip to the NCAA tournament with second-round stops in 2015-16 and 2018-19.
Either Barnes or Moren, who is 51, will win their first Elite Eight game.
Oregon’s Kelly Graves lost three times in the Elite Eight (once at Gonzaga and twice with the Ducks) before finally reaching the Final Four two years ago in his 22nd season as a head coach.
“There’s 350-some-odd Division I teams. We made it to the final 16,” Graves reasoned after the loss to Louisville on Sunday.
Ask Sean Miller how difficult it is to get past the Elite Eight.
Lute Olson won his first four Elite Eight games at Iowa and Arizona but lost three out of his last four, including the upset loss of the defending national championship team in 1998 to Utah and the infamous collapse in 2005 against Illinois.
Auriemma’s record of 20-5 in the Elite Eight indicates more than anything UConn’s supremacy in women’s basketball.
VanDerveer, who lost her first two games in the Elite Eight with Ohio State and Stanford, is 12-8 in the round.
Other elite Elite Eight records: Summit 18-7, McGraw 9-1 and Barmore 9-6.
Barnes is at a point now where Auriemma, VanDerveer and Summit were 30 to 40 years ago when they started their elite status in the Elite Eight.
Women’s basketball and competition in the NCAA Tournament back then was not as developed as today.
VanDerveer was asked Sunday about winning a national title, a feat she has not accomplished since 1992, after beating Missouri State and reaching her 21st Elite Eight in her 43 years as a head coach.
“You just have to enjoy the moment,” VanDerveer said. “I’m a very live-in-the-present person. If we have an opportunity to answer that question I’ll be happy to answer that.”
A majority of coaches such as Staley and Graves undergo Elite Eight hardship. The legendary C. Vivian Stringer, who has 1,046 wins in her 50 seasons as a head coach, has not reached the Elite Eight since the 2007-08 season at Rutgers.
Brenda Frese, who played at Arizona from 1988-92, was denied a chance at her first Elite Eight since 2014-15 on Sunday when Maryland lost to Texas.
She has not reached the Elite Eight in her last five NCAA tournaments after going that far seven out of 10 years (from 2005-06 to 2014-15).
Instead of lamenting about the lost opportunity, Frese talked about next season because of her young team with many sophomores.
She is well aware about the grind to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament in her 22 years of coaching.
Women’s basketball has progressed a great deal since she started coaching at 28 years old at Ball State in 1999-2000.
“This is the first time for many of our kids,” Frese said. “When you look at our sophomore class, they were going to the NCAA tournament for the first time (because of COVID-19 canceling last year’s tournament).
“All of this is just going to make us better.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.