Commentary

Players, coaches don't expect déjà vu

Originally Published: April 6, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- If you have the idea that this is as much a foregone conclusion as Reagan versus Mondale in 1984 … well, of course you think that. Thing is, neither Connecticut nor Louisville, which meet Tuesday night (ESPN, 8:30 ET) for the NCAA championship, is thinking that. They can't, won't and aren't even inclined to.

Maya Moore & Angel McCoughtry
AP Photo/Jessica HillMaya Moore's Huskies have twice beaten Angel McCoughtry's Cardinals by an average of 33.5 points.

"I don't think they're looking at it as they're any less than us," UConn's Kalana Greene said. "At this point in the tournament, everyone's 5-0."

Yes, but just as some animals were "more equal" than others in "Animal Farm," the Huskies aren't just 5-0 in the NCAA tournament, but 38-0 on the season. And 2-0 against the Cardinals in 2009.

Top-ranked and top-seeded, Connecticut has won every game this season by double digits. Including victories by 28 and 39 points against Louisville, the first in Storrs, Conn., and the second in Hartford in the Big East tournament final.

You could expect that the Cardinals would never be so unconfident that they would publicly show any quaking in the face of UConn. Likewise, you know the Huskies could never be so gauche as to say right out loud, "We already clobbered them twice, why wouldn't we do it again?"

But do you wonder if, deep down, that's what they're really thinking? Well, they're actually not. It isn't in the makeup of either team to approach this game that way, regardless of what observers might think.

Louisville has thrived on the tried-but-true underdog role all tournament after being given a No. 3 seed, but that doesn't mean the Cardinals don't believe in themselves.

"We want them to keep saying the other team is going to win, because that's how we win," Louisville senior Angel McCoughtry said.

Exactly who the "them" is that McCoughtry refers to is not certain, although one could guess she's talking about most of the media who cover the tournament … or perhaps much of the whole world.

Because what would be the reasons to expect something different?

There's no question UConn is the best team in the country. There's no doubt. What we have to do is find a way to play better for 40 minutes.

-- Louisville coach Jeff Walz

• You could point out that the Cardinals did play well for the first 15 minutes or so of their regular-season matchup with UConn on Jan. 26.

• You could point out that they had to play a double-overtime game against Rutgers in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament and then had a six-point victory over Pitt before meeting UConn in the title game in March.

• You could point out that Louisville freshmen like Becky Burke, Monique Reid and Gwen Rucker all have made gains throughout the course of the NCAA tournament.

Ultimately, though, both the Huskies and Cardinals are looking less at what already has happened and more at what can happen Tuesday. The unexpected still does occur in sports, even against what appear to be extreme odds. What one side will do everything possible to guard against, the other will be hoping for.

"What we did to them in the first game, I don't know that had any effect on the second game," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "What we did to them in the second game, I don't know that it has any effect on today.

"Different environment, different day, different attitudes among the players. I mean, there's no disputing the fact that we won by a lot both times. But I don't know what that gets you. You still have to go out [Tuesday] and make the shots and stop them."

The Cardinals aren't trying to minimize how good UConn is, but by the same token they can't come into the game acting as if it's impossible to win.

"We've seen, the two games that we played them, that at times it seems like they can do no wrong," Louisville senior Candyce Bingham said. "They are a great team with a great coach. They are 38-0. What else can you say?

"People can say what they want as far as us being beaten badly -- which we were. But we're playing for the national championship, so you just approach that differently."

Louisville coach Jeff Walz is not telling his players they have to pull off a 1980 U.S. hockey team-type miracle to beat UConn. He's not focusing on the upset aspect of this much at all, because there's no point.

"We're going to have to try to find a way to make [UConn] uncomfortable," Walz said. "How we're going to do that, I haven't quite figured out yet. But we're going to have to try to control the tempo of the game. If we come out the way we played [Sunday] night, instead of it being 11-0, it's 25-0. Our kids know that."

Walz has called his Cards the Bad News Bears, but it's quite a stretch as an analogy. How could a 34-4 team be described as such? McCoughtry acknowledged Monday she wasn't even sure what Walz was talking about because she didn't know who the Bad News Bears were.

Once it was explained, McCoughtry smiled and said, "Those are the ones that everybody laughs at, and those are the ones that are successful? OK. That's what makes it more special."

Truly, though, nobody outside of Walz is giving Louisville this Bad News Bears moniker. Least of all the Huskies.

Auriemma, saying he prepares for the best but thinks the worst, will find ways to worry about how this game might somehow go against him.

His players, who've approached all 38 "tasks" so far with the mindset of, "Just play like we're supposed to," will try to replicate that efficiency one more time.

Absolutely, the Huskies are huge favorites. But Louisville point guard Deseree' Byrd chose to look at it this way.

"I know many people say Geno has never lost a national championship game," Byrd said. "But neither has Coach Walz."

Everyone, especially Walz, laughed at that, because this is his first NCAA title game as a head coach, compared with five for Auriemma. Walz was an assistant to Brenda Frese for the 2006 Maryland team that beat Duke for the title, but the Terps had defeated the Blue Devils once already that season before the national championship game.

What he will try to get from this Louisville team is the best everybody has to offer, all the while knowing that still might not be enough.

"Motivation is not tough if you're honest with players," Walz said. "As for myself, it's going to be fun. There's no question UConn is the best team in the country. There's no doubt. What we have to do is find a way to play better for 40 minutes."

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.