Connecticut’s women’s basketball team is the most dominant college basketball dynasty since the UCLA men. But UConn also stands as a beacon for the rest of the NCAA field to strive for.
How about those Huskies?
No, not THOSE Huskies. Not Washington’s sensational women, whose unlikely Final Four foray is the feel-good story of the year in Seattle sports — and gaining traction nationally.
I’m talking about the other women Huskies — the ones from the University of Connecticut. The ones who not only never lose, but crush teams with such soul-sapping ferocity — and mind-numbing regularity — that the backlash is resounding.
A Massachusetts-based columnist asked, “Is UConn’s women’s basketball team too good for the game?”
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No, not The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, though he did reiterate that oft-posed question last week, concluding that “the UConn women are so good they have stripped their sport of all drama and competition and made it similar to performance art.” And drew the predictable and acid-tongued ire of UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who long ago tired of apologizing for his team’s dominance.
Actually, the previous query was the headline in a 2010 article in the Springfield Republican, in which columnist Ron Chimelis explained why his paper doesn’t print UConn’s box scores: “To me, that’s like printing the final vote of an uncontested election.”
That was six years ago, mind you, and the Huskies have, if anything, accelerated their obliteration of the women’s basketball scene. In pursuit of their fourth straight national title, Connecticut has won 73 consecutive games overall (every one of them by double digits), 120 of its last 121, 22 straight in the postseason, and is crushing teams this year by an average of 40 points.
The question of whether UConn’s near-monopoly of women’s basketball hardware is bad for the sport is one that has been asked every year since, and now has reached a crescendo. The Huskies, who won 90 straight games from Nov. 16, 2008 until Dec. 29, 2010, have put together a streak of success not seen since John Wooden was winning 10 titles in 12 years with UCLA. Auriemma is going after his 11th.
And it’s a question that suddenly has local relevance, considering that Washington is one victory over Syracuse away from a national championship match that would almost certainly be against Connecticut.
I’d bet the UW Huskies would tell you, if they weren’t bound by the sacred prohibition against looking beyond the next game, that they welcome the challenge of playing Connecticut. But so did Mississippi State — a No. 5 seed with a 28-8 record — in the Sweet 16, and they lost by 60 points, 98-38. That was one of four UConn wins this season by 60 or more points, to go with six by 50 to 59 points and 15 by 40 to 49 points.
My initial conclusion was the easy one, the narrative that’s gaining momentum — the Connecticut Huskies are, indeed, ruining women’s basketball by taking the competitive aspect away.
But the more I thought about it, the more that not only demeaned Connecticut, which plays the game with brilliance, grace, and strength, and Auriemma, who may well be the best pure coach in college sports, but also the entire women’s game. (Auriemma also exudes an arrogance and cockiness that can be extremely off-putting — but doesn’t that describe many top men’s coaches, as well?)
I don’t know how anyone who followed the women’s tournament, particularly, Washington’s stunning run through the field as a No. 7 seed (joining No. 4 Syracuse in the semifinals) can say that it wasn’t worth watching. There was, perversely, even more parity and crazy upsets in the women’s tournament than the men’s.
That entertaining parity exists a rung below Connecticut, to be sure. There’s much truth to the overwhelming conclusion that everyone else is playing for second place.
But UConn stands as a beacon for the rest of the field to strive for — and rest assured, they will eventually be caught, and beaten. No dynasty is forever, though it might take Auriemma’s retirement, just as it took Wooden’s to end UCLA’s reign.
I’d put it this way, because the truth, as usual is not absolute — Connecticut is both exhilarating and detrimental for women’s basketball. People love dominance, but not too much of it. They like to see a team or superstar reach pre-eminent status — and then get knocked off that perch. It happened with Tiger Woods, and it’s going to happen with the Golden State Warriors, who are today’s darlings and tomorrow’s bully that must be stopped.
Connecticut might be squelching the drama now, but they’re also putting down a challenge that should invigorate the sport. They are showing the supreme possibilities of utter greatness in women’s basketball — and inviting others to do the same.
It’s a siren call that must be heeded soon, however, before people tune out for good. If I were advising a high-school girls basketball superstar, I’d suggest she go be part of the team that brings down Connecticut. To me, that would be a far more satisfying achievement than being just the next cog in the UConn Huskies’ relentless machine.
Connecticut seems infallible, but just four years ago Baylor beat them out for the title with a 40-0 record. Another Brittney Griner is no doubt lurking out there, maybe with the yearning to topple UConn.
Way back when, Pepperdine coach Gary Colson led the chorus of men’s coaches who bemoaned the UCLA run of titles from 1964 to 1975. It was ruining basketball, they harrumphed. To which Wooden, of course, had an answer:
“The same thing was said about the Yankees in baseball,’’ the iconic coach said after beating Kentucky for his final title in 1975. “Whether it’s an individual or a team, whenever you reach a plateau of excellence, there are always a lot of people who want to see you knocked down. Then, when that happens, they don’t know what they were complaining about. There were those who wanted to see Joe Louis get whipped when he was heavyweight champion all those years. Then, when he did, they were sorry.”
I don’t think anyone would be sorry if Connecticut got knocked from its lofty perch. But much of the complaining going on now needs to be re-directed toward embracing the challenge of getting it done.