Husky Hysteria sweeps through Connecticut
It's a phenomenon like no other when the following of UConn men's and women's basketball gets together each winter.
He took a random video produced in Texas and turned it into one of the most successful children's franchises in history -- can you say Barney, the purple dinosaur? -- but in some ways Larry Rifkin's biggest discovery was the University of Connecticut women's basketball team."It's a tough call, really," said Rifkin, the senior programming executive at Connecticut Public Television. "Barney, of course, is a huge international thing. UConn's impact here on CPTV is actually far greater. "Connecticut basketball defines us. I daresay there isn't another public station in America and very few commercial ones that have a franchise so essential to their being in the community." Back in 1995, several months before UConn won its first NCAA basketball championship, Rifkin and CPTV outbid all the other Connecticut stations for the right to broadcast women's games. The price: a then-staggering $2.28 million for three years. In retrospect, it was a shrewd investment. Rifkin calls the UConn women's basketball a serial drama, a series of changing characters, but not changing success. "From Rebecca (Lobo) to Nykesha (Sales) to Svet (Svetlana Abrosimova) to Shea (Ralph), we fall in love with them and then they leave," Rifkin said. "All these wonderful characters with more always right behind them. Last year they were actually underdogs, and with Diana (Taurasi) they found a way to win. Now, they're favorites again." You can say that again. Indeed, both of UConn's basketball teams will be favorites this season. When the national preseason polls come out at the end of October (men's) and early November (women's), Connecticut is expected to be ranked No. 1 in both. This happened only one other time in 1999, when the Huskies of both genders were again dual preseason favorites. Brace yourself for a dose of overexposure. Spies in Storrs, Conn., report that you'll soon be seeing the likes of Emeka Okafor and Diana Taurasi on the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. Jim Calhoun returns a 23-10 squad that finished No. 11 in the final ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and features national player of the year candidates Okafor and Ben Gordon. Calhoun is aiming for his second national title in six seasons. Geno Auriemma's reigning national champions, led by Taurasi, already the national player of the year as a junior, attempt to win their third consecutive title. As if folks in the Nutmeg State need any incentive to back their basketball teams. Maybe it's the size -- you can bisect the state from New Haven to Hartford to Enfield in a little more than an hour. Maybe it's the odd-man-out location between Boston and New York. Or maybe it's the fact that there are no major professional teams playing within its borders. Whatever the reason, a virulent form of Husky Hysteria -- some prefer to call it UConn Madness -- prevails. It is possible that the state college basketball teams mean more to the people in The Land of Steady Habits than any other athletic team does to its region, which is saying something. Basketball in Indiana? Football in Green Bay, Wis., or Tuscaloosa, Ala.? Women's hoops in Knoxville, Tenn.? They've got nothing on Connecticut basketball.
|“||It affects everyone. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. Even unborn children are UConn fans. The pregnant ladies feel them kicking because they're so happy. It's gigantic. ”|
|— Howie Dickenman, Central Connecticut men's head coach|
"I think the only thing comparable might be Penn State football," Calhoun said. "The people here love their basketball. I coach in the best place in America."Our goals were to make it a program to be reckoned with in the Big East, and we made it a program to be reckoned with in the nation. I used to tell people that I coached at UConn and they'd say 'Isn't it cold up there?' UConn is no longer up north in Alaska, as in Yukon." Nobody does it better, on both sides of the (basket)ball, as it were, than Connecticut. In the past 20 years of college basketball only two programs have managed to win a national title on both the men's and women's sides. North Carolina won the men's title in 1993 and the women reigned in 1994. Those are the only two championships for the Tar Heels. The Connecticut women broke through in 1995 and the Husky men matched that championship in 1999. Moving past Tennessee as the nation's preeminent program, the UConn women have won three of the past four titles. Quick, name the elite men's programs over the last decade. Based on victories, the top three are Kentucky (287-66, .813), Kansas (286-64, .817) and Duke (273-72, .791). Makes sense, right? Believe it or not, UConn (266-73, .785) is fourth. On the women's side, it's not even close. The Huskies (339-21, .942) are far and away the best team. Tennessee (322-39, .892) is second. Between them, they have won seven of the past nine national titles. Checking in from his car phone earlier this week, Auriemma said he couldn't imagine the phenomenon to come when he first arrived. "Women's basketball didn't exist in the minds of an awful lot of people," he said. "Men's basketball, they always said there was a passion for it here. To be honest, when I got here you could always get seats to the games at the old field house. "Then, when the winning started in the late '80s and early '90s, both the men's and women's teams saw a tremendous amount of people come out of the woodwork. It just brought everything to the surface."
The Madness, compared to, say, the sweeping grandeur of Yale football (established in 1872), is indeed a relatively new phenomenon. It can be traced to a nine-month gestation period from 1985-86, when two towering personalities arrived in Storrs.
MEN WILL BE NO. 1
Connecticut simply is the most talented team in college basketball this season. And that's why the Huskies should be the preseason No. 1. UConn has the player of the year favorite in center Emeka Okafor, as well as one of the best wings in the country in junior Ben Gordon. No one changes the game as much as Okafor, who can block shots and cause havoc on the defensive end. When Gordon is making shots at will, it gives the Huskies an inside-out combination that is unrivaled. Point guard is no longer a question with a senior Taliek Brown, who has settled into being Jim Calhoun's on-court leader. Brown has the experience of an Elite Eight and Sweet 16 the past two seasons, just like Okafor and Gordon. The small forward spot is loaded with Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson, two players who can make 3s. Depth and chemistry could be an issue at forward where four players are competing to stand next to Okafor. But the talent is overwhelming with freshman Charlie Villanueva, one of the top five players in the class of 2003, freshman Josh Boone, a wide body who has unlimited potential, and returning sophomores Marcus White and Hilton Armstrong. Calhoun said he remembers the 1999 title like it were yesterday. He also remembers what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told him that night after UConn beat the Blue Devils. Coach K told him he would want another title the day after he won the first. Well, Calhoun won't have to wait until the last game for his team to believe they're the best. They already are.
The Connecticut women's program has been first, second or third in national attendance for the past eight seasons, trading places with Tennessee. Gampel Pavilion has been sold out for every women's game since December 1997. Last year, a sell-out of 10,167 filled the place for six regular-season games. There were seven dates at the Hartford Civic Center with identical houses of 16,294. When the Huskies visits a campus arena, invariably a new attendance record is set. Last Feb. 1, UConn-Duke was the first women's game to fill Cameron Indoor Arena (9,314). While the men come close to filling Gampel and the Hartford Civic Center on a regular basis, their numbers are not typically among the nation's attendance leaders. There are 93,000 UConn alumni to draw from, a significant number in a state with a population around three million. The CPTV women's ratings are the best in the country for a public television station. Typically, they draw a 33 audience share and a 15 rating -- numbers that approach popular shows shown on commercial stations. "It is the hearth that Connecticut gathers around in the winter," CPTV's Rifkin said. "It is our basis of community, the thing a lot of people live for here."
WOMEN WILL BE NO. 1
Last year, a very respected colleague who is an expert on men's college hoops but a more casual observer of the women's game wrote a column before the Connecticut-Duke women's matchup in February. He said that UConn should have been ranked No. 1 all along. He figured the Huskies needed to lose before falling from their perch, established in the previous perfect season. I thought then, "Well, I'll be darned. For once, he's wrong.'' Uhhh ... I'm not making the same mistake again. I truly did think Duke last year was deserving of the No. 1 preseason ranking, something the Blue Devils seemed to further prove when they beat Tennessee soundly early on. But then UConn went to Duke and -- despite allowing a furious second-half rally -- knocked off the Blue Devils. And, of course, went on to another national championship. With their key players back and more experienced, there just isn't a good reason not to have the Huskies start this season No. 1. That said, Texas and Duke are nipping at their heels. We'll just have to see if the Huskies have any "Achilles'' in them. They sure didn't last year when it really mattered.
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