Stanford-UConn? The next great rivalry
Huskies have won 48 consecutive games since falling to Stanford in 2008 Final Four
STORRS, Conn. -- Enjoy the rivalry we have, not the rivalry we might wish to have.
Luckily, for anyone more interested in basketball than soap operas, the two need not be mutually exclusive when No. 1 Connecticut hosts No. 2 Stanford on Wednesday (ESPN2, 5:30 p.m. ET) in Hartford.
While discontent in Knoxville means that winters no longer include the formerly familiar annual clash between Tennessee and Connecticut, the two best teams in the country are ready to continue what fortune and the NCAA tournament have turned into a regular tradition across five meetings in the past six seasons.
And a tradition with some intriguing history of its own.
Since arriving at Connecticut more than two decades ago, Geno Auriemma has faced 16 programs at least 10 times. He owns a winning record against every one of them, including a 13-9 edge in the only rivalry people outside the sport seem to value.
On Wednesday, Stanford will become the 17th program to play double-digit games against Auriemma's Huskies. With a win, it would also be the only one to hold bragging rights. The Cardinal have won five of the nine games played between the two all time, including an even split in four games since the two ended an eight-year drought in the 2005 postseason.
And, of course, the Cardinal are also the last team to stop the Huskies' juggernaut, an 82-73 victory in a semifinal at the 2008 Final Four. Since that point, Auriemma's team has won 48 games in a row, including a semifinal rematch at last season's Final Four en route to UConn's sixth national championship and its third perfect season.
"Our two programs are always consistently top of the country every year; [they're] just competitive programs, always work hard," Connecticut All-American Maya Moore said. "And any time you can face a team that competes and works hard, it's got the -- I mean, I don't really know to label stuff 'rivalries.' We just go out and play against whoever we're going to play against. And Stanford's a great team, so it's going to be fun."
Coming off wins against No. 8 Duke and No. 3 Tennessee in the last week, Stanford gets a chance to stake a claim not as the underdog that felled a giant but as the best team in women's basketball. Or Connecticut prolongs its reign.
Either way, someone will be leaving with an unofficial crown, if not a trophy.
"Hopefully it brings good attention to women's basketball," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said.
And at its core, this remains a rivalry blessedly based on basketball. There will be stars on display beyond the two coaches, including the presumptive top two picks in the next WNBA draft -- Tina Charles and Jayne Appel -- and the prize of the following draft in Moore. But the beauty of it is in seeing how two teams that match up with anybody match up with each other.
During a conference call Sunday, VanDerveer said she didn't think the teams were all that much different than the ones that met a little more than eight months ago in St. Louis. There is something to that sentiment -- part of what set both teams apart from the pack from the outset this season was how much talent each returned. Eight players who started in that semifinal will be on the court Wednesday at the XL Center, as will all three reserves who played 10 or more minutes for either side that night.
But change out even a few ingredients in any recipe and the experience changes.
After last year's Final Four loss, VanDerveer said her team had to do better shooting the ball. In no small part because JJ Hones has literally gotten better, making her way back from a second torn ACL, the Cardinal have done just that. They averaged six 3-pointers per game on 33 percent shooting from behind the arc last season. Through nine games this season, they're shooting 36 percent and hitting 7.6 per game. That might not sound like an earth-shattering difference, but for a team whose greatest strength is its size and offensive skills along a front line of Jayne Appel, Nnemkadi Ogwumike and Kayla Pedersen, the outside cover adds another dimension.
Hones is a significant part of that, as is Jeanette Pohlen, the starting point guard for a team that effectively plays ball handlers at a time out of Pohlen, Hones and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. So is Pedersen, a 6-foot-4 forward with the skills to be an All-American in the low post but the touch to flourish as a threat on the wing.
"She's really embraced it this year," VanDerveer said. "And I think if there's one thing that really makes a big difference for our team, it's her at the 3 [position] making 3-point shots. She opens things up for Nneka and Jayne. And we can always play her at the 4, and then she's a tough matchup there. But she opens things up, and the fact that JJ is shooting well and that Jeanette is, it opens things up for our post players."
Part of the difficulty Wednesday will be getting those looks against Connecticut's perimeter defense, as quick and as suffocating a group as any outside the WNBA.
Of course, those perimeter players, particularly Tiffany Hayes and Caroline Doty, are themselves part of the puzzle for Connecticut after Moore and Charles.
In the sense that they're beating teams by an average of nearly 46 point per game and lead the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, the Huskies haven't suffered in replacing Renee Montgomery at the point with a combination of mainly Hayes and Doty. They've also done so in games where the margin for error was wider than the margin of victory. Playing Stanford in front of upwards of 15,000 fans at the XL Center, even partisan fans cheering you on, demands a different level of execution.
It's no coincidence that in addition to 26 points, Montgomery finished last season's Final Four win with six assists and one turnover.
"They play a kind of a game that will take advantage of the fact if you're not disciplined," Auriemma said of VanDerveer's teams historically. "If you're not disciplined defensively, then they'll take you apart. And if you make any mistakes whatsoever, they capitalize on them. And same thing defensively. If you don't execute your offense, if you don't do what you're supposed to do and do it the way you're supposed to do it -- they don't beat themselves, let's put it that way."
The opening two months of the season have provided an abundance of good stories and remarkable parity within the top 30 or 40 teams -- after the top two teams. When it comes to the championship picture, there is still no room inside the frame for any team other than Connecticut or Stanford. If you love the sport, there's reason to tune in every night. If you're a casual fan, it's hard to find a convincing argument to tune in before March. Except on this night, two night before Christmas, when we don't need to hope the Final Four soon will be here.
The involved parties will say all the right things about a game that settles nothing.
"It's a December game that will only help us get better," VanDerveer.
For the rest of us, the fun of it is in settling nothing. And for at least the current contract spanning this season and next, it's a rivalry that will only help the sport get better.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.