I have to admit that I've found the feedback to the UConn women's basketball team's winning ways to be a bit of a curiosity,
There certainly are those who appreciate what the Huskies do game in, game out and season in, season out but on days like today when UConn goes after its 100th win in a row it seems like they are in the silent minority,
There are the "anybody but UConn" women's basketball people who believe that ESPN's coverage is of the "all UConn all the time" variety. That could be close to being true the last couple of days when ESPN going from not even taking wins No. 89, 90 and 91 in a row as the UConn games it chose to broadcast this season to going somewhat overboard in the promotion of the game over these last few days. It has culminated with tonight's contest at South Carolina likely being the most heavily promoted regular season women's college basketball in history. I can't even imagine the mood of those "tired of UConn" people right about now or what they were feeling when their team had a game on one of ESPN's channels and there was constant chatter during the game and at halftime about UConn's dominance. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley referenced this when she said (with a smile on her face), "probably everybody in America is going to be cheering for us" after the Gamecocks' most recent game.
Those people I mentioned above aren't even close to being to people most annoyed by the attention UConn is receiving. I'm sure if I logged into Twitter right now it wouldn't take much effort to find the "you couldn't pay me to watch the UConn women's basketball team play" or "yawn, another 20-point win" or of course the, "why are they comparing this to men's basketball."
When ESPN college basketball college analyst calls Gabby Williams the most complete player in the game (meaning the men's and women's game) there have been plenty of social media posts wondering why she wasn't recruited by one of the elite men's programs. The next one of these that is as humorous as the person typing into their keyboard thinks that it is would be the first. Yes, players and teams in women's basketball can be celebrated without the men's basketball faithful being threatened. Not that anybody asked my advice but if you don't have an interest in women's college basketball, don't watch. My Twitter feed last night was inundated with posts about the Grammy Awards which is something I had zero interest in watching. I thought it's great that there are those who can't wait for that show to be shown on television and I wouldn't dream of posting my disdain at watching the Grammy Awards, I merely watched something else.
Auriemma has heard all of this before and he is the one who has to answer these questions even though he has never claimed that his program is superior to the UCLA men's basketball teams in the 1970s. Auriemma followed those teams especially when Philadelphia raised guards Walt Hazzard and Andre McCarter played for Wooden.
Naturally, the UCLA subject was raised in the press conference after UConn beat SMU for win No. 99 in a row.
"You couldn't tell me what UCLA stands for and I could put you a mile from their campus and you wouldn't know where it was," Auriemma said of the naysayers. "You've never seen them play back in those days, you don't know anything about their program, who they beat, how they got to the Final Four, how they won championships, you know nothing about them, you just know, 'I hate women's basketball and you are not UCLA.' I get that but back then the game of college basketball wasn't viewed as it was today, there was no competition."
Auriemma has incredible respect for what John Wooden accomplished and it has been well documented over the years. He still laughs when he recalls an unforgettable face to face meeting he had with Wooden only to see an interview with Wooden years later when he said he never met Auriemma.
Knowing how competitive Auriemma is, I am sure he would love for games like tonight to the rule and not the exception. If all he wanted to do was extend a winning streak, he wouldn't have scheduled games at Florida State, at Maryland, at Notre Dame or home games with Baylor and South Carolina since any or all of those teams could have beaten the Huskies. He wouldn't have pushed for the American Athletic Conference schedule to be cut from 18 to 16 games so he could add more challenging non-conference games to UConn's schedule, I'm sure he'd be just fine if things were like they were during the 2000-01 season when he had one of his most talented teams featuring seven future first-round WNBA draft picks and five future Olympians only to suffer losses to impressive Notre Dame and Tennessee teams. It forced all three programs to raise the level of their play. Those UConn/Tennessee games when Tamika Catchings and Svetlana Abrosimova were suiting up were women's basketball's version of must-see TV. If South Carolina, Notre Dame, Baylor, Maryland or another team rises to that level, that would be a good thing for that program and the sport. It wasn't that long ago when Notre Dame won seven out of eight games against UConn or Baylor was being touted as having potentially the best team in the sport's history when Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims shared the court for the Lady Bears. It is quite possible that one of those teams will be cutting down the nets at the Final Four or maybe it will title No. 12 for UConn.
Auriemma appreciates the teaching impact that a loss can bring. The stunning defeat to Villanova in the 2003 Big East tournament final set the stage for the Huskies winning the national title last year and the 2014 loss to Stanford forced some of the Huskies' role players to take a good, hard look in the mirror resulting in the history-making that followed. I'm not sure the 2001-02 team would have played as well as it did without being motivated by the loss to Notre Dame in the 2001 Final Four. Winning 59 of the last 99 games by at least 40 points or having 56 games during the streak when UConn won a game without trailing. Still, Auriemma expects his players to give as much effort when they play East Carolina or Tulsa as he does when South Carolina comes to town. It is an expectation level that starts in the recruiting process.
Gabby Williams is her own toughest critic. She wanted no part of a question of whether she thinks she should be a national player of year candidate earlier this week instead discussing the areas where she feels like she should be performing better. Napheesa Collier is in the midst of one of the best seasons a UConn forward has ever enjoyed and in a recent interview with me she mentioned that she wasn't being as aggressive as she needs to be. If a player is content to be good they probably aren't going to last at UConn or at least play a significant role. It is a subject I brought up in an interview with UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey earlier this season.
"They understand that there is a certain way because that is the expectation that we have, we are holding them to a standard every day," Dailey said. "Every second we are in the gym, you are being held to a certain standard and I think they understand that. I think what they have shown is that they too have embraced the challenge, they have embraced the schedule that we have this year, how tough it is when you are Connecticut and you are ranked No. 1. They have embraced all of that and have taken everybody's best shot including the coaches every day and have always gotten back up and performed. I think that is a credit to our players, a credit to the types of kids that we get."
Auriemma and Dailey have the ability to recruit nationally, something they didn't have when they first started. The Huskies' first Final Four team featured 13 of the 14 players being from New England, New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania. When UConn won its first national title in 1995, eight of the 12 players were from New England. When the Huskies take the court tonight, there will be starters raised in California, Missouri, Nevada and Ontario but Auriemma and his staff look for many of the same attributes in today's players that he and they did back in 1985.
"Number one, the talent part is obvious so we are looking for the talent part but beyond that, a lot of the talented kids that we recruit, they happen to be on really good teams and then you are looking for, 'what kind of impact do they have on their teams,'" Auriemma said. "Just because you are a really talented kid doesn't mean you have an incredible impact on your team so when I see a kid playing high school and I see that she impacts the team in so many ways and that impact is directly related to how much she is doing to help her team win then you kind of go, 'hmm, I think we've got something here.' Then you can tell by what they ask you in the recruiting process and how they answer certain questions you ask them. The majority of kids that we get, they talk about winning championships so that implies that their main priority in going to college is winning championships, they have their priorities straight.
"I tell kids and their parents all the time that whenever kid goes to me, 'what position am I going to play or what is my role going to be on the team?' I go, 'you are probably not going to have one because you are probably not coming to Connecticut' because the players that I get that are not of that mode, Lou, Pheesa, Gabby they never asked me those questions, it's inherent to them who they are that, 'of course I can play, I'll decide my role, I will show Coach Auriemma I can do this, this and this and of course I am going to play. How many minutes am I going to play? I'll play as many minutes as I want to play because he is not going to take me out of the game.' You have kids who are supremely confident No. 1 or their own abilities. They walk into our facilities, look up on that wall and probably go home every night going am I going to be the first schmoe to screw this up and they probably come to practice scared every day that they don't want to be the one to screw it up."
Auriemma will do everything in his power to win tonight's game but if by chance the Huskies do lose, it doesn't impact the goals he had for this team. The only streak that matters to him in the six-game streak at the end of the season resulting in another national title.
Win or lose I am sure the "is UConn's dominance bad for the sport" will continue to come. He has come to terms with it and refuses to apologize for his team playing well and winning at a mind-boggling rate.
"I don't that something really,really good can be that bad," Auriemma said. "I am sure there are things, I can see why people would say it but the attention that we can bring to the game, that has to be a positive, that is not a negative. I can't do anything about what people say. I can't do anything about people's perception, all I know is somebody said this one time, he ran for office, any kind of publicity is good publicity. We are getting a lot of people who appreciate what we are doing and getting people who are paying attention saying that is bad for basketball. Obviously they are paying attention enough to know we are bad for women's basketball."
If UConn runs the table and posts the program's seventh undefeated season and wins an unprecedented 12th national title, Auriemma won't be apologizing and he has no need to. The scary thing is that everything this year's team is supposed to lack (size in the post, depth) won't be an issue moving forward with transfers Azura' Stevens and Batouly Camara being eligible next season and a stop-notch recruiting class headlined by Megan Walker coming in.
There are people who have a problem with UConn's dominance or with women's basketball being in the spotlight. Well, either turn the channel or stay off social media because this UConn program figures to get better and not worse in the coming years. It is not UConn's job to play down to the competition any more than it is sprinter Usain Bolt's responsibility to run slower so his fellow runners can win a race every once in a while. The Huskies will continue to strive for excellence, pursue the quest to play the perfect game. Teams that are good enough, perhaps that will be South Carolina tonight, will get to celebrate when they end the longest winning streak in NCAA basketball history. In the meantime, it will be business as usual for UConn.