Huskies have experience like no one else
OK, time to consider the possibility that Connecticut's women can win the national championship again, which would be their fourth in a row.
You already have considered it, you say? You just took a look at the bracket and started seeing the potential dominoes go down one by one?
Or are you saying, "What? Shut up! Just shut up! I don't even want to hear it! Not UConn again, please. Just drop me down a mine shaft now."
The Huskies -- the No. 3 seed in the Kansas City Regional -- have lost seven games this season. Everyone knows they're not the Sue Bird-Swin Cash-Diana Taurasi-Ashja Jones-Tamika Williams Huskies of 2002. But, of course, they don't have to be that good. They just have to get the crank turning and see how far it takes them.
Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp was asked the other day what was most crucial for a team's NCAA Tournament success.
"Experience," she said. "And having a clear-cut 'I'm going to go make plays for you' type of player. There's no clearer example than Taurasi the last few years. Kids who step up and have remarkable games that take their teams to the next level."
OK, we know there's no Taurasi anymore for the Huskies. But I've always thought the greatest players leave a residue, if you will, of their greatness. Even when the stars are no longer there, the things they did can inspire the remaining players who competed alongside them.
Even Taurasi's transformation into the Huskies' go-to player didn't happen overnight. But Connecticut fans should be happy having witnessed stretches where Charde Houston has shown superstar quality. Maybe her biggest breakthrough moment yet will come in the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
Then there's the experience factor. UConn's got plenty of that, and specifically NCAA championship experience. Ann Strother, Barbara Turner, Ashley Battle, Jessica Moore ... at some point, the feeling could just kick in for them: "Hey, this is familiar. This is what we're supposed to be doing."
|Connecticut's Jessica Moore and fellow seniors Ashley Battle and Ashley Valley have never ended a year with a loss.
They are seeking an unprecedented fourth consecutive national championship and enter the NCAA Tournament with a 130-12 record. That includes 18 straight NCAA wins.
UConn's scoring average dipped slightly this year -- the Huskies are averaging 70 points, which is five fewer than in 2003-04 -- but UConn also is holding foes to just 50 points per game.
Ann Strother is having another good season beyond the arc. The junior has moved up to fifth in career 3-pointers, and is close to passing Jen Rizzotti and Sue Bird for third all-time (behind Wendy Davis and Diana Taurasi).
Turner hasn't been fully healthy this season, missing four games in January. But she has seemed more like herself the last three contests, scoring in double figures in all of them. And Turner is, by personality and talent, such a classic "big-game" player.
Strother has had to carry the consistency of the scoring load, and with just a few exceptions, she has done pretty well with that. Sure, the Huskies have had a few "hold-your-nose" games offensively, but Strother has come through with what has been needed most of the time.
Moore had to return from the ACL injury she suffered last season during the NCAA title game. It has often been the case that UConn players are "underrated" to a degree because their individual stats don't leap out at you. UConn followers are sure to have their own views on which player that phenomenon has affected most over the years in terms of national recognition, but I tend to think it's Moore.
And Battle is the one who -- at any time -- might suddenly start making plays all over the court and usually provides almost a rocket-booster effect for UConn. You don't know whether she will do it, but you do know that she can.
Obviously, a lot has been made of the point-guard situation and the chess match that Geno Auriemma has sort of played against the memory of Taurasi/Maria Conlon. Which brings us to Auriemma, and how many different buttons he has had to push this year. It hasn't been easy, but a lot of things have worked -- or are on the verge of working.
Taurasi and everything she was able to do in the biggest situations can't really be replaced or successfully duplicated. If the Huskies find themselves in a position in this tournament where they need a "Taurasi moment" to survive, they might not get it. But if they play as well as they're capable, that might be enough.
Now, certainly other teams in UConn's quarter of the draw are saying, "OK, knock it off. We're ready for the Huskies if we have to face them."
And they might well be. But it's notable that there isn't another top seed in the Kansas City Regional with monstrously athletic potential.
That doesn't mean the likely opponents won't present challenges if the Huskies do reach Kansas City. Top-seeded Michigan State won big at UConn in late December and isn't going to be intimidated. Meanwhile, No. 2 seed Stanford is probably on a slow boil again, feeling it has been underestimated by the committee for the second year in a row. And this is a Stanford team that has all the bases covered.
To make it to the Sweet 16, fourth-seeded Kansas State must overcome having lost a four-year starter in Megan Mahoney to injury a week before the tournament. But if the Wildcats do get there, they will be just two hours from their home in Manhattan, Kan., and have the crowd advantage.
If you factor in some upset potential, consider No. 5 seed Vanderbilt making the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row. The Commodores' nonconference schedule left a lot to be desired. But certainly by its SEC semifinal against Tennessee, Vandy looked like a seriously good team.
Or -- and Stanford fans will just love this even being brought up -- what if seventh-seeded Iowa State is the team that makes it into the Sweet 16? The Cyclones' home of Ames is just 3½ hours from KC's Municipal Auditorium, and Iowa State would have the same type of crowd advantage as K-State.
Still, no matter how you figure it, picturing UConn getting to Indianapolis doesn't take very much imagination. And what if the Huskies met Tennessee there in the semifinals? UConn is 9-3 against the Orange Crew since 2000.
And of the top eight teams on the other side of the draw, three have won national championships, but only one did so recently -- Tempe Regional No. 4 seed Notre Dame in 2001. The others are Tempe's top-seeded North Carolina (1994) and Chattanooga's third-seeded Texas (1986).
Which means that if UConn survives into the final, it takes all that title game-winning experience into the last night.
So, yeah, it could happen again.Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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