Women's basketball in the NCAA is a much different animal than the men's side. Not only is the style of the games obviously different, but there is much less parity among the teams. Each year, the same teams not only dominate, but absolutely destroy their lower competition. Obviously everyone knows the kind of run that Connecticut's program is on. It's very hard to turn things around if you're a middle of the pack team that starts to trend downward.
The last 4 or 5 years of women's basketball had not been kind to Pitt Panther's women's team. After not only making the NCAA tournament, but the Sweet Sixteen two years in a row with former head coach Agnus Berenato in 2008 and 2009, the women started a downright ugly trend. After losing some key players, the women would go 16-15 in 2009-2010, with 5 wins in conference. They won the same number of conference games the next year, and then after that is when the wheels entirely came off. Pitt did not win a single conference game its last two years in the Big East. That's astounding, and it was obviously embarrassing for the Pitt, the players, and the coaches. Recruiting was not doing much better, and at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 season, Steve Pederson made the somewhat surprising move of removing Agnus Berenato from her position as head coach. It was surprising in that Agnus had a long term deal signed already, and it would be expensive to buy her out of the rest of her contract, but that's what Pitt did.
Just down the road, Suzie McConnell-Serio had had a great season with Duquesne, finishing with a 24-8 record, and an 11-3 conference record. Her team was somewhat snubbed out of the NCAA, and they went on to lose in the second round of the NIT. Duquesne was 7-20 before her first season there. Suzie McConnell-Serio was a two time Oympic medalist, and was also name an WNBA Coach of the Year when she coached Minnesota Lynx after making the playoffs as a preseason last place team.
Steve Pederson made the relatively easy to decision to hire Suzie McConnell-Serio as the new Pitt coach. It was considered a slam dunk hire by anybody that followed the local basketball scene. Perhaps the only negative Pitt fans had against her was she a Penn State graduate, though she had a stellar career there, and that doesn't really matter anyway. She was a perfect hire, but it would take time to turn the program around.
In Suzie's first season at Pitt , there was a slight increase in overall wins, but she won three conference games compared to the zero from the year before. The team lacked talent and depth at a number of a positions, but McConnell-Serio signed a pretty stellar class with three ESPN top 100 players. She also asked former four year Pitt volleyball player Monica Wignot to come on board for this season to add even more depth. Suzie's daughter Jordan also joined the team. Coming into this season, Pitt was picked to finish last in the ACC in the polls at ACC Media Day.
I say all this to provide some context to what's currently happening with the team. They're currently 18-8, and 8-5 in conference, and at 6th in the conference and a half game up over Miami and UNC. Considering the numbers from the season prior, this is pretty astounding. They have more than a legitimate shot of making the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years. Their five conference loses came against the top 5 teams in the ACC, and all of them are ranked in the top 25. (Syracuse just barely). They've come back in several games down in the second half to win the game. They even knocked off a UNC team that was top ten at the time they played. Three of the freshmen McConnell-Serio recruited are not only contributing, but are starting, and in the top 5 for the team in scoring with Yacine Diop (10.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Stasha Carey (9.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg), and Aysia Bugg (6.2 ppg). Monica Wignot turned out to be an extremely smart move by McConnell-Serio. She's averaging 10.9 ppg and 6.3 rebounds, and shoots 38% from three. It's a shame Pitt only gets her for this season.
McConnell-Serio has also not only kept Pitt's best player playing well, but the best she's ever played. Brianna Kiesel has simply had a fantastic career at Pitt. She was a really great player on some very bad teams early in her career, but is now having the best season of her career in her senior year with this team. She's averaging over 18 points per game, 5 rebounds per game, and 4.75 assists. Brianna's even an 86% free throw shooter She makes smart plays, and knows how to turn it on when she needs to. She's steadily gotten better every year. She more than deserves to be on the Pitt Varsity Walk, and deserves far more attention than she gets.
While Pitt will lose a lot after Wignot and Kiesel leave, there is a pretty good amount of talent on a really young team. Seven out of the team's eleven players are freshmen or sophomores, and three of them are starters as mentioned earlier.
Coach of the Year is a very circumstantial and relative award, but I don't think any coach in the ACC has had quite the turnaround Pitt has had. Coach of the year shouldn't just go to the one having the best season. Considering the expectations going into the season, this team has simply shattered the narrative that Pitt had a struggling women's program. Is there room to get better? Obviously, and the season isn't over. They have some tough games to finish out their season, but I'd love to see Pitt win a game in the NCAA tournament if they make it. It would be a really great year, and a foundation for hopefully an even better season next year. I'm not sure the ACC will be smart enough to give Suzie the award, but there's no question in my mind she more than deserves it.