DENVER -- In the fall of 2000, just before the start of the basketball season, University of Colorado coach Ceal Barry brought our team on a tour of the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver.
The Pepsi Center was the host venue for that year's NCAA regional, and Barry wanted us to set our sights on advancing to the Sweet 16 so we could play in our home state for a chance to go to the Final Four. Early that fall afternoon, we walked in through the player's entrance and toured the Denver Nuggets' locker room. Barry told us to envision ourselves sitting in that same locker room at the end of March, lacing our sneakers, getting ready to play in front of a national audience.
Hosting the 2001 NCAA regional final was a big deal for the state of Colorado. (We fell one win short of advancing to the Pepsi Center, losing at Vanderbilt in the second round while Notre Dame went on to win the national championship. But that season, each of us carried a "Pepsi One" can in our bags to remind us of the goal. I remember seeing those cans, unopened, at the top of each of our lockers when we trudged back to the visiting locker room after losing to Vanderbilt.)
Denver has always wanted to host the Final Four. The state has tried for years to lure the event since Colorado has a long, rich history of women's basketball. It's tough to remember that history given the current state of the women's game here in Colorado. To be kind, the game here has hit a bit of a lull. Ten years ago, Colorado State was fresh off a number of Top 5 seasons with star point guard Becky Hammon.
The University of Colorado was about to reel off a slew of Top 25 seasons. The in-state recruits, such as Ann Strother (UConn) and Abby Waner (Duke), became national names elsewhere. And just a couple of years prior, the Colorado Xplosion of the now-defunct American Basketball League, had developed a strong following. Now, the in-state programs are working to build back up their fan bases and become, once again, national contenders.
This weekend, women's basketball fans are finally converging on Denver, and it's been a long time coming. I know a lot of women's basketball loyalists, whether around town or in the college towns of Boulder and Fort Collins, are hoping the event will spark a bit of a renaissance. Former UConn star Maya Moore once told the story about how attending a Final Four as a young kid helped solidify her dreams. This weekend, the stands will be filled with more young kids. Maybe a few of them will be watching and dreaming, just like Moore did.
Worrying about Colorado's tradition wasn't something I thought about while touring the Pepsi Center that day is 2001. I thought of this state as one of the strongest women's basketball states in the country, and I hope hosting this Final Four will fuel that return.