Commentary

UConn still the one as 2010-11 opens

Target still on Huskies' back, but playing them might not seem so daunting this season

Originally Published: November 7, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

If it seems like a long time ago … that's because it was a long time ago. UConn coach Geno Auriemma, sitting alone briefly while waiting to go to a postgame news conference, contemplating a loss.

He had his hand to his head, as if a headache was beginning and it was going to linger. This was April 6, 2008.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesGeno Auriemma's Huskies haven't lost since falling in the Final Four to Stanford on April 6, 2008.

Since then, Auriemma hasn't lost. He guided his Huskies to back-to-back 39-0 seasons. He led Team USA to gold at the women's world championship in the Czech Republic.

Oh, hold on. Wait a second. He did lose once … Team USA fell in a September exhibition to Australia, a game in which neither side had all its top players. But such has been Auriemma's extreme success rate now for two and half years, that a "practice game" is what has to pass for a blemish on his record.

"I've grown used to it now," Auriemma said of the expectation, rather than celebration, of perfection. "It's kind of numbed me to it now. I don't let it affect my preparation or my judgment. I've gotten a lot of credit as a coach during my career. And when your team doesn't play well and doesn't achieve the goals you set for yourself, the coach has to take the responsibility as well. I'm OK with both sides of it."

As his preseason No. 1 Huskies prepare to start another title defense and attempt to give the program a three-peat for the second time, the most immediate question is how much longer UConn's undefeated streak will last.

Now at 78, the streak actually has not really taken on much of a life of its own to those UConn players, like superstar Maya Moore, who've been there for all of it and are now in charge of keeping it going.

"It's not something that you go out during a game and say, 'OK, guys, this is for the streak,'" Moore said. "You go out and want to play well and represent the program well every time you're on the court."

But the streak will be front and center for observers, with at least an expected challenge coming very early. Baylor, which fell to UConn in the national semifinals last season, comes to Hartford for a Nov. 16 showdown that will either energize the rest of the women's basketball world … or make everyone groan, "Will it ever end?"

Let's put it this way: The Huskies are not Zenyatta. Virtually everyone wanted to see the superhorse finish her career undefeated, for her streak to remain forever intact.

The Huskies are not Zenyatta. Virtually everyone wanted to see the superhorse finish her career undefeated, for her streak to remain forever intact. But most women's basketball fans, unless they are loyal Huskies faithful, can't wait for the UConn streak to end.

But most women's basketball fans, unless they are loyal Huskies faithful, can't wait for the UConn streak to end. Are some neutral observers rooting for UConn to surpass the UCLA men's 88-in-a-row standard? Surely some are … but many followers of the game have a case of UConn fatigue now. Doesn't every Achilles eventually have to expose a heel?

Auriemma says yes: He has predicted his Huskies will lose at least once this season. He's sure of it.

What in the world makes him think that? Gee, could it be the loss of three starters? Center Tina Charles was the WNBA's rookie of the year this past summer. Guard Kalana Greene moved on to the WNBA, too. And point guard Caroline Doty is dealing with another infernal ACL injury.

Moore, whose career has shadowed UConn legend Diana Taurasi's in so many ways, will try to replicate Taurasi's final achievement, too: winning a third consecutive NCAA title before becoming the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick.

Most expect Moore's name will be called first in the April 2011 draft. But whether that will come after she has lifted another national championship trophy will depend on the entire team. And she's very much in tune with that.

"I've never been a part of a team that was really successful with it all being on one player's shoulders," Moore said. "I have to individually get better, and everyone on the team has to individually get better, to make up for some of the things that we're missing that we had last year.

"So I am not going to necessarily go out and put some completely new role on myself. I'm going to do a lot of the same things I did last year, but improve things I see I more clearly need to get better at. But I'm not going to make it 'I have to do everything on the court,' because that's not how the game works."

Her teammates are aware of that. Senior Lorin Dixon is like a regular cast member of "Saturday Night Live" who just hasn't been featured in many skits. She might be in a more substantial role as she finishes her time with the Huskies. Junior Tiffany Hayes should be ready for her close-up. Same for sophomore Kelly Faris. All three will have more of a load to carry on the perimeter with Doty out.

Redshirt sophomore Heather Buck, slowed by illness and injuries, is needed for UConn's interior game. And that's it for the experienced players. The other five Huskies are freshmen -- all highly rated, of course, but still facing a season of getting their feet wet by being thrown into the ocean.

[+] EnlargeNnemkadi Ogwumike
AP Photo/Steve YeaterStanford and Nnemkadi Ogwumike are seeking their fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Welcome to UConn! The attention! The streak! The NCAA title defense! Trying to meet Auriemma's standards!

So even though she's not intending to be a one-woman team, Moore might need to motor around at times like the Coast Guard picking up anyone floundering. She is more prepared than ever to do that. She spent part of the summer/fall on the U.S. national team playing with five other former Huskies and winning a gold medal.

"Even just in practice, you can go try different things against such a high level of competition," Moore said of her time with the American squad. "And it was awesome to play with [past Huskies] who were part of the same culture, that same will to win. It was really fun to be on the court with people who are going to push you even harder than you've ever been pushed."

The last college player to compete for Team USA in the world championship before Moore did it was Tennessee's Candace Parker, who was part of the bronze team in 2006 … and then about six months later, won an NCAA title. The latter feat she repeated in 2008.

Which brings us back to that crossroads: the last time UConn lost. Since Tennessee had pulled the plug on the regular-season series with UConn in the summer of 2007 -- at least in part because of hostilities that arose during the recruitment of Moore -- that 2008 Final Four had the potential of a mega-fireworks final between UConn and Tennessee.

But Stanford knocked out the Huskies in the semifinals before succumbing to Tennessee's defense in the final. Since then, Stanford has stayed in that holding pattern of "almost" getting a national championship, while Tennessee made an unprecedented visit to the wrong side of the tracks.

Both return this season as national championship contenders again. The Cardinal will be attempting to match UConn, Tennessee, Louisiana Tech and LSU as programs that have made it to the Final Four at least four times in a row. UConn and LSU hold that record with five straight (2000-2004 for Huskies, 2004-2008 for the Lady Tigers).

However, Stanford does not want to match LSU's feat of going to the Final Four at least four times in a row without actually winning any of them. Last year, after surviving what realistically should have been a loss to Xavier in the Elite Eight, the Cardinal took their new life to San Antonio, where they beat Oklahoma but then fell to UConn in one of the most aesthetically displeasing finals in tournament history.

That 53-47 stink bomb did not come close to representing the best of either squad, and the atmosphere in Stanford's locker room after the loss was less about sadness than an acute degree of irritation.

The Cardinal no longer has center Jayne Appel, but Kayla Pedersen and Nneka Ogwumike are back, and "little sis" Chiney Ogwumike joins the Stanford crew. The big question, as it has been the last couple of years for the Cardinal, is whether the guard play will hold up well enough all the way through another NCAA title game.

As for Tennessee, losing five starters off that 2008 championship team meant a 2008-09 season like none before for Summitt. She had talent, but it was young, lacked confidence, and too often was overwhelmed. Summitt crossed the 1,000-victory mark during that season, but then fell in the NCAA tournament first round to Ball State.

Maya Moore
David Butler II/US PresswireMaya Moore says UConn's quality practices are responsible for the program's success.

Last season, Tennessee was back on track, winning the SEC regular-season and tournament titles. But the season ended in the Sweet 16 against Baylor.

Tennessee has all its key players returning, but Alyssia Brewer is out indefinitely after Achilles tendon surgery that was required after an accident in her apartment that had nothing to do with basketball.

Vicki Baugh knows all about that kind of bad luck, although her aches and pains have come from incidents on the court. Baugh suffered a torn ACL in the 2008 NCAA title game, and then tore it again in February 2009 while playing against Oklahoma. There was some thought during last season that Baugh might try to come back, but she redshirted it and is now again in action.

That's a big boost for Tennessee's post game, and gives senior guard Angie Bjorklund one more veteran to help her. Expect that if Tennessee is going to return to the Final Four this season, defense (surprise, surprise) will be the ticket.

The team that eliminated Tennessee last season, Baylor, enters this year as the Big 12's favorite, but just got some bad news. Senior starting point guard Kelli Griffin left the team, with no official reason stated. That's because coach Kim Mulkey said she didn't know the reason; Griffin apparently just decided she no longer wanted to play basketball.

This is a deep Baylor team, one that Mulkey has said is the most talented since she took over the program, led by sophomore center Brittney Griner and senior guard Melissa Jones. But Griffin's absence, especially early, is bound to be missed at least to some degree. How Griffin's departure affects Baylor remains to be seen, but few are able to rally teams in the face of setbacks any better than Mulkey does.

Who else merits some mention as potential Final Four contenders? Certainly after coming so close last season, Xavier -- led by post player Amber Harris -- could make a run at finishing the season in nearby Indianapolis.

Ohio State, once again, would like to translate its Big Ten success to a lengthy NCAA tournament run. Duke, with a loaded rookie class, is looking for the program's fifth Final Four trip, but first under coach Joanne P. McCallie.

Texas A&M and Kentucky, both teams that like to keep the tempo fast and the defensive harassment constant, are seeking Final Four breakthroughs.

The past two seasons, there really was a pervading feeling that the challengers were going to ultimately run up against a blue brick wall. That, in fact, there actually were no real challengers, because UConn would find a way to beat anybody.

And that's exactly what happened. But at the end of two individual-season streaks that have joined as the program now just builds on its own excellence, Auriemma would be proud of Moore's blue-collar answer as to how the Huskies plan to keep their forward momentum.

"Really, what keeps the streak alive in the first place is the quality of our practices," Moore said. "How much we pay attention to detail. The streak is not something we want to think about too much, because then you start playing out of fear or pressure, instead of confidence."

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.