Commentary

Routs remind us of the way we were

Does women's hoops need UConn-Tennessee? No, but matchup is greatly missed.

Originally Published: November 17, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- Perhaps there are folks who could look at the doubleheader held here in what will be the 2010 Final Four city and not think, "Wow, they had the wrong matchups." Not sure who those people are, though.

But, alas, there was no other way to do it. Not with these four teams. Texas and Texas Tech will face off once the Big 12 season arrives. And UConn and Tennessee will …

Well, we all know that story, huh? They won't meet unless it happens in the NCAA tournament. And judging by the way both played Tuesday, that meeting most likely would be at the Alamodome in April.

Tuesday's games were at the AT&T Center, home of the NBA's Spurs and WNBA's Silver Stars. I saw Dan Hughes, coach of the Silver Stars, after the games and asked what he thought while watching UConn and Tennessee play.

"How focused and how hard they work at the game," Hughes said. "And athletically and size-wise … you know, when I look at them, it reminds me a lot of a team I might coach in the WNBA.

"You're talking about several players who someday are going to be WNBA players. As a talent evaluator, I'm looking at the future of our professional game."

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireMaya Moore had 20 points and 11 rebounds as all five UConn starters scored in double figures.

No. 5 Tennessee clobbered Texas Tech 91-53, followed by No. 1 UConn pounding No. 13 Texas 83-58.

An usher at the AT&T Center had a great idea, which he shared with a patron after the final horn sounded to end the not-very-competitive doubleheader.

"Tell you what," he said, "I'd sure like to see those teams play each other."

He meant UConn and Tennessee, of course. They of the marquee series that Tennessee coach Pat Summitt terminated after the 2007 season. We won't rehash all the supposed reasons in detail. Suffice to say the Tennessee fans think it's UConn coach Geno Auriemma's fault and Summitt had a right to do it. The UConn fans say Summitt maligned Auriemma in regard to allegations about recruiting and ultimately she just could not get over Maya Moore going to UConn.

The people on neither side generally fall into two camps. Some are totally thrilled the series ended, because they are fed up with the focus on those two programs. Others are sorry to not have the epic battle guaranteed each season.

Summitt doesn't really talk about UConn or the series concluding or her reasons for ending it. She and her team did not stick around to see any of the Huskies-Longhorns game; they headed out for their charter flight home to Knoxville.

"I can watch it on tape," Summitt said, looking like she wasn't all that interested. But Tennessee will play Texas on Dec. 6, so examining the Huskies' victory over the Longhorns might nab her attention then.

Auriemma, though, has never been an "I don't really have a comment" kind of guy. So in the Huskies' postgame news conference, I asked him about the elephant in the room. Was the lopsided nature of both doubleheader games an example of how the UConn-Tennessee regular-season series is missed?

"I don't know that's that important anymore," Auriemma said in that passive-aggressive way of his … and then proceeded to tell a story that, I think, capsulizes his frustrations.

At a dinner Monday evening, attended by all four teams, it was announced that ESPN's "GameDay" will be in Storrs, Conn., on Jan. 16 for the Huskies' matchup with Notre Dame.

"That's like huge -- Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps, the whole thing. And they're going to be there all day," Auriemma said. "You know what the response in the room was? Dead silence."

He extrapolated, from their lack of reaction, that the players and coaches of Tennessee, Texas and Texas Tech were essentially dismissing the whole thing.

"It's like, 'Who gives a [blank]? If it's not about us, we don't care,'" Auriemma said. "That's just embarrassing.

"So you know what? The biggest game of the year this year is Connecticut-Notre Dame. The biggest game of the year next year is going to be Connecticut at Notre Dame. And the year after that, it's Connecticut at whoever ESPN decides it's going to be."

And with that, Auriemma just further infuriated the fans who already don't like him.

But please allow me to try to translate what's really going on here. I'm not sure what kind of response Auriemma realistically expected from the other three teams. It's not breaking news that "GameDay" will be in Storrs; that has been known for a while.

Sure, it might have been worth a round of applause in support of what it means for women's basketball. But I'm not surprised there wasn't one. I think most teams and programs focus primarily on themselves.

However, I think his mentioning their lack of reaction reflects that Auriemma always has felt he's the loathed outsider in the perceived "old-girl network" in women's basketball that, in his view, worships Summitt. He thinks that in the eyes of everyone except UConn fans, she can do no wrong.

I think it bugs him to the core. He doesn't want to join "the club," yet he also resents that he'll never even get an invitation.

Of course Auriemma wants to play Tennessee. Why wouldn't he? He has a 13-9 edge in the series, and he always has excelled when the limelight is the brightest. He knows Tennessee and UConn made one another better, even if the programs and their fans grew to hate each other in the process.

Whether peace will ever be brokered, we don't know. But in the wake of his being, for lack of a better way to put it, the "dumped" party, he lets some of the bitterness out at times.

"The only people that really wanted the whole Connecticut-Tennessee thing were people outside women's basketball," he said. "That was for the outside fan. Everybody in America that's associated with women's basketball at Division I, they were sick and tired of that Connecticut-Tennessee thing. They were like, 'Come on, how about some other programs? How about we see some other teams on TV?'"

That's not completely true, nor do I think Auriemma believes it is. But he says things in such hyperbolic ways to make the point that he often feels underappreciated or even scorned by the women's basketball community at large.

The thing is, there's more than a kernel of truth to what he said. I live in Big 12 country, for instance, and many of the fans I hear from say they can't stand UConn or Tennessee.

They feel those programs are overcovered by everyone (including me), and they always root for them to lose. So they enjoyed Tennessee's 11 losses last season while they lamented UConn going undefeated.

Auriemma's earlier remark saying ESPN "deciding" where the "biggest game" will be -- that's something that also rankles fans outside those two programs. There's a feeling UConn has benefited tremendously from the ESPN empire's being in Connecticut.

I'm sure it hasn't hurt, obviously … but, come on. For pete's sake. Look at the way UConn plays, the success the program has had, how well the alums have fared in the WNBA. Nobody in the media is propping up UConn; the program has won six NCAA titles all on its own.

Tennessee has won eight. And it's rather notable that the "GameDay" event at UConn will happen exactly 15 years after the first UConn-Tennessee meeting. The Huskies won that game by 11 and vaulted to first place in the rankings.

"Hey, we used to play them twice [a season], remember?" Auriemma said. "How'd it get to one? Same way it got to none."

Meaning both things were Summitt's decision.

So … was Tuesday night proof of how much women's hoops needs to get the UConn-Tennessee series back?

Well, I don't think it's a need so much as it's a desire. There really are a lot of good programs out there that deserve attention. And definitely some that would have played UConn and Tennessee better than Texas and Texas Tech did Tuesday.

That said, there was a weird feeling in the AT&T Center that two battleships had passed in the night, and no one knows for sure when they'll engage again.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

ALSO SEE