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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

UConn's Final Four loss to level playing field? I don't think so

UConn will be favored to win national title during
Kia Nurse's and Gabby Williams senior year


Based on the reactions I've seen since UConn's season ended with a loss to Mississippi
State, the issue of a lack of parity has been solved thanks to that one result or at least there is a hope of breaking the stranglehold that the Huskies have on the sport.

Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, maybe it is the euphoria from the "anybody but UConn" crew out there loving life after the Huskies run of four straight national titles came to an end but the reality is that next year is shaping up at yet another season of UConn dominating the women's basketball universe.

So what has exactly changed since the UConn loss? Other than plenty of noise on social media, not a heck of a lot.

Napheesa Collier one of three returning
All-Americans for UConn women
The Huskies will return three WBCA All-Americans. That is the first time that has ever happened. No, not in program history but in the sport's history. Not only will Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams be back but so will Kia Nurse, who only happens to be a starting guard on Canada's national team. Azura Stevens, who would have been listed among my top five players going into this season had she remained at Duke, will be eligible giving the Huskies five 1,000-point scorers. Fellow transfer Batouly Camara will also be eligible after sitting out last season as well. Highly-touted freshman Crystal Dangerfield should have a larger impact after enduring some ups and downs in her debut season and national high school player of the year Megan Walker
highlights a talented recruiting class. The depth and lack of height issues that were prevalent with the team this year are no longer issues.

The Huskies are also involved in the recruitment of three of the top four players in the Class of 2018 (Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Christyn Williams, NaLyssa Smith) and the top-rated player in 2019 (Samantha Brunelle). So if the Huskies add Williams and Brunelle to play alongside of Walker as well as top 10 Class of 2018 commit Charli Collier, don't you think the familiar refrain of UConn's dominance being bad for the sport will continue to be uttered?


Charli Collier among talented recruits who are part
of the future with UConn women's basketball team
The Huskies were already going to be the favorite to win next year's title but consider what has transpired over the last few days. National champion South Carolina lose starters Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray to the WNBA Draft, national freshman of the year Destiny Slocum is one of three players transferring out of Maryland while freshmen Tori McCoy and Kiara Lewis, both top 25 recruits, are leaving Ohio State after one season.

Wonder why the Huskies are able to dominate year after year, well roster upheavals at
other national powerhouse programs have a lot to do with that.

The year after UConn signed the class to end all recruiting classes when Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck came to Storrs and were members of four national championship teams another super class was put together. Diamond DeShields, Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington were all top 25 recruits who were supposed to lead North Carolina to its first national title since 1994. They did lead the Tar Heels to 53 wins in their first two seasons before abandoning ship. UNC finished 14-18 and 15-16 over the last two campaigns. Gray did get her national title but none of the others have even made it to the Final Four - yet.

Teams like Texas, Notre Dame, UCLA and Louisville certainly have the makings of teams capable of challenging the Huskies but I don't see UConn being knocked off of its perch as the top program in the sport in the foreseeable future.

I've heard that chatter of how South Carolina is going to be able to use the momentum of this year's title run to separate itself from the pack. If that happens, Dawn Staley is going to need to get to work on the recruiting trail preparing for life after A'ja Wilson as the star of the national champions has one season remaining. I really like what I saw from freshman guard Tyasha Harris at the Final Four as she looks like a completely different player from the one I saw play against UConn in February but the jury is still out on the rest of Wilson's running mates for her final season.

Recent history has illustrated that a run to the title or the national championship game doesn't necessarily translate into a team making that next step.

Texas A&M won the championship in 2011 and has advanced to the regionals just once since that time. Duke played in the 2006 title game and hasn't returned to the Final Four again. The next year Rutgers played for the national championship and that was supposed to push them over the top. Well, the Scarlet Knights have missed four of the last five tournaments and since 2010 have won a grand total of two games in the NCAA tournament. LSU made it to five straight Final Fours from 2004-08 and its best showings since that time are two Sweet 16 appearances. What is the future looking like for  2016 national finalist Syracuse with Alexis Peterson, Brittney Sykes and Bria Day all graduating? Notre Dame, Baylor and Maryland are programs who used their deep NCAA runs to become among the sport's A-list programs on an annual basis but sustained excellence is much harder to hold onto.

If there is one constant it is the teams with the best player are the ones to make the most noise on the national level. Case in point, 16 of the last 21 national champions had at least one player who won either the Gatorade or WBCA national high school player of the year award. Oh, UConn happens to have the winner of both of those awards coming into the program next season.

Staley has done a remarkable job at South Carolina and it can't hurt that she is the U.S. national team head coach for the next four seasons. She already has a top 10 recruit in the fold in 2018 in Destanni Henderson. Also, I don't want to hear any of this "well, she didn't have to beat UConn in the tournament." I don't recall UConn's 2013 championship run being trivialized because the Brittney Griiner/Odyssey Sims Baylor team failed to reach the Final Four. UConn didn't get to the final game and that wasn't South Carolina's fault.

Mississippi State's upset made for a great story. Morgan William's emotional interview after the win over Baylor in the Elite Eight was as powerful as any I've ever witnessed and I knew right then that she was going to be a major part of my national semifinal advance which she was. However, the fact that it took 37 games for the Huskies to taste defeat says more about the state of sport. I sat right behind the Mississippi State bench and the pure emotion displayed when they won was great to see. That is what March Madness (although it was actually April by the time the final buzzer sounded) is all about. The question is why couldn't another team made life as difficult for UConn as Mississippi State did on that night in Dallas? The challenge now is to take the next step but to avoid the mistakes that Rutgers made of recruiting a different type of player than the ones that got them to the title game in the first place.

When I first started covering the UConn women's basketball team, it was during Sue Bird-led glory days. My second season on the beat the Huskies had seven future WNBA first-round picks (would have been eight if not for Shea Ralph's career-ending knee injury). The Huskies escaped with a win over Tennessee and lost by 16 at Notre Dame before the injuries hit. The following season UConn may have had the best starting five in the history of the sport and was pushed to the brink in the national title game by Oklahoma. I didn't even mention to down to the wire national finale between Notre Dame and Purdue in 2001. The competition level at the current time is nowhere near what it was during that time. The Huskies lose Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck and head into the Final Four with an undefeated record despite playing every top team that is could schedule. That simply should not have happened.

How is it that there were such compelling matchups a decade and a half ago and now we are talking about the future of the game being bright and how the game was improved because UConn lost in the Final Four? The quality of play in the national semifinals was not exactly anything to write home about, the officiating even worse. William did the sport a world of good because had UConn won that game, the attention would have been on that flagrant foul called well after the fact which had the Huskies executed properly, would have put them in the national championship game. If that had happened it would mean that both the Division I college and WNBA titles were influenced by shoddy officiating down the stretch which is not a good look for the sport.
The fact that UConn nearly walked away with an undefeated season and national title after losing the players taken No. 1, 2 and 3 in the WNBA Draft speaks volumes of how the game has failed to capitalize on those great 2000, 2001 and 2002 seasons when players like Tamika Catchings, Ruth Riley, Stacey Dales and Katie Douglas helped their teams put up a fight against star-studded UConn squads.

I tweeted late in the UConn/Mississippi State game that I wish there were about 20 of these games a season to cover and I stand by that statement. Florida State and Tulane deserve credit for what they did against UConn this season before the Huskies emerged with hard-fought victories but so many of the other top programs simply did not live up to their end of the bargain.

I've seen some what of the outrage after Geno Auriemma's comments on the dwindling number of female head coaches at the Division I level. It was probably a better story a season ago when - gasp - all four Final Four teams were coached by men. Oh the humanity. I remember hearing stories about prominent female head coaches high fiving each other when Notre Dame beat UConn in the 2001 Final Four. The reaction wasn't because they were that happy for Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw but because Auriemma lost.

More recently an organization consisting of female coaches had a post on social media asking what impact Auriemma has made to the game. The fact that somebody who I assume is involved in the sport has to even ask the question is beyond pathetic. There is a story this year of an All-American who approached Auriemma after her team lost to the Huskies asking for advice on how to get better. Even though there is a chance that player could have knocked his Huskies out of the tournament, he took her aside and told her what UConn's scouting report was. Auriemma said to her to make the notes on her scouting report as few and far between as possible. Tell me how many coaches would take that step? How many times have coaches come to watch his practices and I've never heard of a time when he said no. Try asking Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri of the role Auriemma had when she went after that job or count the number of his former players who have headed into the coaching profession.

I've heard stories of prominent coaches distancing themselves from their former players once they left the program but try counting the number of former Huskies who show up at the Final Four year after year. How about when he sat down with the coach who would knock him out of the NCAA tournament to answer questions about his offensive coaching philosophy. I remember asking him about how much more aggressively Brittney Griner goes up for layups after her time with the U.S. national team after Griner helped Baylor hand UConn a loss and he simply shrugged his shoulders as if to say am I not supposed to coach her to the best of my ability so I can win a college game? Sure, he has his agenda but to say the former president of the WBCA is only interested in what is best for UConn or requesting examples of what he has done to make the game better is downright laughable.
Look, I understand Auriemma's personality rubs people the wrong way but I also understand that there are those who have been entrusted for growing the sport that are more interested in seeing male coaches gone from the game rather than having the best possible coaching candidates involved in the game.

I don't cover women's soccer and softball at the collegiate level but I haven't heard of North Carolina's Anson Dorrance and Arizona's Mike Candrea being viewed as public enemy No. 1 in the female sports that they dominated. How much of that is Auriemma getting under people's skins and how much of that is simply the amount of pettiness in the women's basketball world? I don't have an answer to that question.

I would think the goal is to have teams coached by the best people but instead the attention turns to the gender of the coaches. It shouldn't matter that Auriemma and Vic Schaefer are men coaching women, it should matter that they have elevated their programs to remarkable levels as have Staley, Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw among others. Take a look at the Oregon State program since Scott Rueck took over and tell me that he hasn't done a remarkable job turning around a program that was in disarray. There's no way what he has done or what Kelly Graves figures to do in the coming years at Oregon is bad for the sport.

I'd love to see a time when UConn's game against Mississippi State becomes the rule and not the exception but I'm not optimistic that will ever be the case while Auriemma is at the helm and I am certainly not anticipating that taking place during the 2017-18 season.

6 Comments:

Anonymous John B said...

Thank you Mr. Fuller. Excellent article.

4:55 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.

9:57 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks - enjoyed your article!

10:29 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Past season there was no expectation and no pressure for UConn to win a NC or reach the F4.

Next season, there will be high expectation and pressure for UConn to reach the F4 and win a NC? 3 returning AA, 1 returning Canadian Olympian, 1 highly touted transfer, 1 highly touted freshman. 1 PG that GA touted as potential 2020 Olympic talent.

UConn freshmen are typically inconsistent at best. CD had an excellent game against Baylor. She was inconsistent after that and at times was in GA doghouse. Unfair for anyonne to expect HS POY MW to perform like MM did as a freshman in 2007-08.

Unfair to expect transfer AS to win the POY, which Lawson and Doris started. Hype about Batouly is insane, given her statistics as a Kentucky freshman.

Humans are fragile and influenced my countless variables. Chemistry the Core 4 had in this past season might not be as good in the next season. GA will mix and match AS and MW with members of the Core 4 to see what works best.

If GA moves Gabby from "center" or point forward, it will affect the chemistry. If GA plays AS in the low post and Pheesa outside the arc, it will affect the chemistry.

UConn will not be the only talented team in WCBB. Mississippi State was not the first team with athletic and quick players who stressed the Huskies. Top 15 teams are getting more talented and more athletic every year.

I will enjoy the season without expecting a NC or F4 appearance. Players need to decide how far they want to succeed.

UConn coaches do not win every championship. They typically win the NC with a POY or multiple AA. That did not happen this past season.

11:22 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exceptional article. One of the best I have seen about the state of WCBB in general and UCONN in particular. Regarding comments about next year's class, they will be the prohibitive favorite to win next year and rightfully so. The chemistry will not be an issue as Geno's system, program provides clear expectations about perfornance (give your best, work your hardest), team play(team first, last, always) and the ultimate goal (win). Geno as in the past knows this team will have a target on their back and he will be equally dismissive of the lofty predictions.

This team next year will have many returning parts, many new ones and to that end I am confident that Geno will, as with other previously talented ladened teams, tear it down and rebuild it, player by player, play by play, game by game until it reaches its ultimate goal once again.

8:45 AM 
Blogger Gael said...

I think Jim Fuller is one of the best beat reporters covering the U Conn women's basketball program. And in this article he accurately reports on what a phenomenal coach Geno is. You may not always like his brashness but he is always trying to improve the game.

9:31 PM 

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