Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 23, 2010

Auriemma And UConn Lead; Others Need To Follow

The capacity crowd of 16,294 at the XL Center in Hartford last Tuesday evening came expecting to see history made. The chances of them leaving disappointed were miniscule. They cheered when the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team took the court, led by senior forward Maya Moore. They cheered some more as the Lady Huskies doubled up on #20 Florida State in the first half, leading the Seminoles 54-27 at the intermission. And they cheered long and loud when the final buzzer sounded and UConn, behind Moore’s career-high 41 points, had won 93-62 for the team’s 89th consecutive victory.

The Division I record of 88 consecutive wins had stood since 1974 when the streak of the UCLA men’s team came to an end against Notre Dame. For most of the years since that record seemed unassailable. In the highly competitive men’s game, it very likely remains so. Only the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976 have put together even a single perfect season since the UCLA streak ended, much less the two and one half unblemished campaigns that would be required to approach the record.

Among women’s teams however, Connecticut under Coach Geno Auriemma has become the one true powerhouse program. The Huskies current streak began with the start of the 2008-2009 season. They’ve put together back-to-back 39-0 records, winning Auriemma’s sixth and seventh national championships; and are now 11-0 this season. But in the ten years leading up to the start of this streak, the Huskies were nearly as good. In that decade of play UConn went to six Final Fours, won four national titles, and lost on average just three times a year.

Because there are significantly fewer elite programs for women than for men, that dominance gives Connecticut a palpable advantage when it comes to recruiting the top high school stars each year. At the beginning of the current winning streak UConn fielded the country’s top point guard in Renee Montgomery. Through both of the last two undefeated seasons the team was led by the country’s top center in Tina Charles. Throughout the entire 89 game streak the Huskies have had the top forward in Moore.

Late in Tuesday night’s contest it looked like Florida State was the team slowing the game down, as if they were trying to avoid complete humiliation. But humiliation is what Connecticut’s winning streak has been all about. They’ve won the 89 games by an average of 33.3 points. Only 4 of the wins have been by single digits. Only one opponent has shot better than fifty percent from the floor. Yet it’s not as if Auriemma is only scheduling patsies. During the streak 31 of the victories have come against nationally ranked teams. One nationally ranked team not on that list is Tennessee. In a snit after losing out on the recruiting battle for Moore four years ago, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt has refused to schedule a regular season game against Connecticut since. She also complained to the NCAA that Auriemma had arranged for Moore to have a tour of the nearby ESPN studios during her campus visit to UConn. It’s not immediately apparent how Summitt’s pettiness is helpful to growing the sport.

Because of UConn’s dominance, some commentators have downplayed the significance of their beating UCLA’s record. Doing so borders on misogynism. Winning 89 times in a row is simply a phenomenal achievement; the fact that most of them have been blowouts only enhances the team’s reputation. Auriemma himself doesn’t compare his teams to the powerhouse UCLA squads of the ‘60s and ‘70s. After Tuesday’s game he said that “what John Wooden and UCLA did will never, ever be repeated.” He recognizes that the men’s and women’s sports, as well as the times, are simply different. But he does insist that both the women’s game in general and his teams in particular deserve and have earned respect.

On the court Auriemma’s squads have done all that they’ve been asked to do to garner respect and attention. But one team and one coach can’t do it alone. Speaking to the crowd after the game he noted that “it’s been a long time since we had this kind of electricity in this building.” He then helped to raffle off a couple of Nintendo Wii’s to fans. When the coach of the dominant team in the country acknowledges the novelty of a sellout crowd, and when that team resorts to expensive giveaways to fans, respect and attention are indeed lacking. For that matter when a history-making game is broadcast on ESPN2 while the main sports network carries something called the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl; and while twice as many viewers tune in to see Louisville and Southern Mississippi play in said meaningless bowl game as watched UConn set the record, respect and attention are sorely lacking.

It’s worth remembering that UCLA’s streak came near the end of the time when the Bruins won ten national championships in twelve years. Other schools around the country finally figured out that there was money to be made by making significant investments in their basketball programs. As a result, the men’s sport grew dramatically and March Madness eventually became the annual national obsession that it is today. The women’s game will never rival that, but basketball is the one women’s sport that doesn’t owe its existence at many schools to Title IX; it’s the one with at least the potential to be part of the average sports fan’s regular focus. For that to happen programs around the country must stop waiting for UConn to come back to the pack and start making the investments needed to catch the Lady Huskies.


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