Lots of laughter. They tell jokes. They talk basketball. Men’s basketball. Until now. ESPN’s College Basketball GameDay, in its sixth year, will make history Saturday when it takes its traveling show of hoops hucksters to Storrs, Conn., in anticipation of the Notre Dame-Connecticut women’s game. That’s right, women. “This game is perfect for a lot of reasons,” said Digger Phelps, a regular on the GameDay set. “It all fell into place. Two of the top teams (UConn is No. 1, ND is No. 3) in the country, they’re both on a roll, (Notre Dame’s) addition of (the nation’s top freshman) Skylar Diggins makes this a prime-time game. “It’s a win-win for (Notre Dame coach) Muffet (McGraw). She’s got it all to gain and nothing to lose. There shouldn’t be any pressure on her or her team.” In women’s basketball, as it has been for years, there’s UConn - and there’s everybody else. In the recent past, Tennessee had made a bid to challenge that dynasty. The Irish occasionally served notice. Stanford, now, is on the threshold. Still, the Huskies have endured and rarely faltered. In the last decade, Connecticut has won five national titles. The Irish prevailed in 2001. “Women’s basketball has grown 100 percent (in the last decade),” the former Notre Dame men’s coach said. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s become an event.” Saturday’s event is just one of more than 400 women’s games ESPN stations will televise. That number includes the entire women’s NCAA tournament. So, it’s about time GameDay showed up, right? “Two years ago, we wanted to go to the Connecticut-Tennessee game,” Phelps said, “but (Vols coach) Pat Summitt rejected us. I’m not sure why.” Saturday’s appearance is being embraced with open arms by all involved. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and his players did promos that were shown on last week’s in-studio GameDay. Irish players have been whispering for weeks about the “event,” mindful not to be caught looking beyond the business at hand. “We’re just so excited to be part of the GameDay atmosphere,” McGraw said. “I know the crowd is going to come out and the fans will be very supportive of the entire day. It’s going to be a historical event for women’s basketball, and we’re thrilled to be part of it.” The GameDay crew will hit the air for a one-hour segment at 11 a.m. (EST), to whet the appetite of fans. They’ll be back again at 8 p.m., leading up to the 9 o’clock tip. Phelps, host Rece Davis, Hubert Davis and Jay Bilas will be on location. Former Indiana University coach Bob Knight, a regular on the show, will participate from a telephone hookup. Popular analyst Dick Vitale will be on-site as part of the game coverage. “Dealing with those guys on the set every week is a lot of fun,” said Phelps, who has yet to pick against the Irish - men or women - when it comes to selection time each week. “It’s a good chemistry.” It’s a group that has developed a great appreciation for the women’s game. “The women’s game has improved so much (in the last decade),” Phelps said. “The way they handle the ball; the post play; skills are better. The athletes are developing at a younger age. By the time they reach the college level, there are some pretty good athletes.” Phelps has a feeling that Saturday night’s Big East Conference showdown could be closer than most might think. He saw Connecticut dominate North Carolina last weekend and watched Notre Dame beat Villanova and Vanderbilt recently. “Muffet’s going to play a lot of zone (defense),” Phelps predicted. “She’ll let her guards press like they do, then drop back into a zone.” Phelps admired an Irish defense that forced Villanova into 34 turnovers last weekend, 22 more than its average. “Put a healthy Devereaux Peters out there, and they could be tough,” Phelps said of Notre Dame. At least, it’ll give the GameDay crew something to talk about.
Staff writer Al Lesar: firstname.lastname@example.org (574) 235-6318