INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Geno Auriemma marvels at what his colleagues accomplished this season.
In six short years, Oregon State coach Scott Rueck took a program that needed open tryouts to fill its roster six years ago to the women’s Final Four.
First-time college head coach Mike Neighbors needed three seasons to lead Washington to an improbable tourney run.
Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman rewarded the school’s 10-year wait its greatest season.
And on Sunday, those three first-time Final Four participants will join Auriemma’s perennial powerhouse in Indianapolis on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I remember in 1991, when we went to the Final Four and we were the first team from north of the Mason-Dixon line to ever play in the Final Four, and it was like we had somehow landed on the moon,” Auriemma said during a national conference call with reporters Wednesday. “Now 20-some years later, you have three teams in the Final Four for the first time — and not three teams that were knocking on the door and finally got there. These are three teams that by all measures, only the kids on those teams and only the coaches expected them to be there.”
Inside the programs, there also were questions.
Rueck acknowledged later Wednesday that when he took over at Oregon State, he wasn’t sure if the Beavers could even crack the top half of the Pac-12 in six years — much less play on the season’s final weekend. And after one of his top players, Sydney Wiese, was injured early this season, he again wondered whether his team could achieve its ultimate goal.
The NCAA’s selection committee didn’t make things any easier by setting up a contest against powerhouse Baylor on its pseudo-home court, in Dallas.
“There was still — I can’t lie and say — I mean, there was still a little bit of doubt, can we get all the way to this level?” Rueck said. “You know things need to go your way a bit.”
But Oregon State overcame all of those obstacles and will now face the unbeaten and the three-time defending champion Huskies on Sunday.
The Beavers might not have even had the toughest road to Indy.
Washington, which had only reached one Sweet 16 in the previous 19 seasons, upset second-seeded Maryland on its home court, upset third-seeded Kentucky on its home court and then had to beat perennial Pac-12 power Stanford in Lexington, Kentucky, to earn a ticket to Indy.
The Huskies won them all with a rotation of seven to eight players and for a coach who once took a $58,000 pay cut to pursue his dream of coaching college basketball and will now face Syracuse, a team also getting acclimated to the Final Four environment.
“There are a lot of responsibilities that we’re not used to having to go through,” Neighbors said. “It kind of started here yesterday (Tuesday). We had a press conference here that was full of cameras and reporters. We haven’t even had one of those here and we know that’s going to magnify us. So it is a little bit beneficial that we’re not facing an opponent that’s been through that and will be going through it the first time as well.”
Syracuse’s climb might have been even steeper.
Auriemma, who played the Orange in the old Big East Conference, credited Hillsman with bringing the program from “nowhere” to the precipice of playing for a national championship.
How bad was the program? Auriemma said even the people in Syracuse didn’t know it existed.
After spending a lot of time talking to men’s coach Jim Boeheim about his vaunted zone defense, Hillsman instilled it into the women’s program and nobody can quibble with the results.
Syracuse beat a school-record five ranked teams this season, reached its first Sweet 16, then upset top-seeded South Carolina in the regional semifinals and Tennessee to get a ticket to Indy.
“When we started this journey to get to this point, we’ve always talked about winning championships,” said Hillsman, the second black male to coach in the women’s Final Four. “We never shied away from that, and I start every media day here at Syracuse by saying I want to go 48-0 and I want to win a national championship.”
Auriemma, whose team is the heavy favorite to win an unprecedented fourth straight, wants No. 11.
But even he is impressed with what’s happened around him.
“I think this is a great message to everybody: Stop focusing on what Connecticut does and start paying attention to what a lot of these other schools are doing, and you will see that there’s a lot of great stuff going on out there,” he said. “It just sometimes doesn’t get the attention that it deserves because it’s easy to write about Connecticut.”