Fool me once ...
Nope, not again. Not falling for it this time.Before the 2001-02 season, there were some theories floated about how Connecticut might have some difficulties without Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova, whose college careers were over. They'd both missed the previous season's NCAA Tournament, although UConn still made the Final Four, falling in the semifinals.Diana Taurasi is gone, but talented players such as Barb Turner, right, return to lead the three-time defending champ.
So there were some questions about the Huskies, right? Oh, sure. Those questions turned out to be stuff like, "Is this the best team ever?" and "Might they have lost a game if Sue Bird had been forced to play blind-folded?"
Then Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones left, and there were more questions. How do you replace four players of that caliber and still contend for the national championship? How much of a load could even a great player like Diana Taurasi carry?
OK, we found out the answers to both of those, too, and Connecticut collected another title.
Last season, everybody was back and the only real questions about the Huskies were, in retrospect, ridiculous ones like, "Can they keep up the desire to win?" and "Will Taurasi and Geno Auriemma figure out a way to seriously annoy each other?"
And then there were the assumptions about other teams.
Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale certainly knew her young group wasn't going to win a national championship last season, but she was very sure there were a handful of teams that could.
"As it turned out, Connecticut did it again," Coale said.
Yeah, so much for Duke putting all the pieces together and finally being emotionally ready to win it all. And it turned out that it wasn't the case that Tennessee was ready to reclaim the top spot. LSU was the great story, making the Final Four right down the road from its campus. But not being able to get the ball over halfcourt in the final seconds and instead turning it over ended LSU's run in the semifinals. It became yet another SEC school to fall short thanks to the killjoy-for-the-rest-of-the-league, Tennessee.
What of Texas and the revenge factor after its 2003 Final Four loss to UConn? The Longhorns peaked in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. They were clobbered by Oklahoma in the final and then went down to LSU in the Sweet 16.
Purdue? Lots of seniors, but not quite good enough. Penn State? Lousy draw, culminating in an Elite Eight at UConn's home away from home in Hartford.
Stanford? Good enough to lose another close game to Tennessee (although that more typically happens in December.) You couldn't exactly call Minnesota the Cinderella, because the Gophers were as much like a No. 7 seed as "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss" is like "Masterpiece Theater." Still, Minnesota's run to the Final Four was inspiring to similar homegrown-star programs and the Gophers did give UConn a good challenge, but ...
Sure Connecticut lost that last-second freaky game to Duke in January. But that was January. And then the Huskies looked flustered in falling to Boston College in the Big East tournament title game. But all that really meant is they didn't have to shove something else over in a trophy case (yet) to make room for another piece of Big East hardware.
You'd swear, in fact, that they were almost just setting up everybody else.
What does it all mean for 2004-2005? It means that whatever holes there might be at UConn, they can be filled. If there are rips in the fabric, remember it's still a designer garment with the finest tailors available to work on it.
Coale, one of Auriemma's coaching pals, offered the opinion that this year's team is, "More like some of Geno's previous teams."
Meaning he'll have to do more intense coaching, more ego-building, more tearing down, building up, coaxing, cursing and reassuring. Auriemma himself has said that, too, and if he needs any invigoration and motivation, he knows he has both because of that.
You can also expect that the returning players -- specifically Ashley Battle, Jessica Moore, Ann Strother, Barbara Turner and Willnett Crockett -- all feel a desire to prove they're capable of keeping the title right where it has been the last three years.
But speaking of that, it's intriguing to think that it's at least conceivable that UConn could have won 10 titles in a row. The Huskies won in 1995. They were a different overtime result vs. Tennessee away from probably winning in 1996 (under the history-repeats-itself theory that Georgia still would have lost the title game).
In 1997, the Huskies lost Ralph early in the NCAA Tournament and then fell to some fifth-place SEC team in the Elite Eight -- yeah, that was Tennessee on its NCAA roll. Then in 1998, UConn lost its best player, Nykesha Sales, in January.
(At this point we must reiterate, to prevent multiple angry e-mails from Knoxville and its environs, that we're not saying UConn would have stopped the Tennessee threepeat, just -- again -- that it's conceivable.)
In 1999, the Huskies had lots of talent everywhere else on the court but no point guard because Bird was out most of the season with an ACL injury. In 2000, UConn won it all again. In 2001, as mentioned, it lost two stars and still made the Final Four.
And you know about how it has gone since then.
Certainly, ballhandling and the on-the-floor leadership are issues that UConn has to face this season. Maybe that even costs the Huskies in the early or middle parts of the season, which doesn't matter. And injuries are the unknown that can sidetrack anybody.
But UConn gets my vote for preseason No. 1 because the program deserves it. And come Final Four time, expect the Huskies to be in Indy going for four in a row.Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.
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