UConn bad for game? Hardly
The talent pool in women's basketball is deeper and the competition significantly better
We come to bury Connecticut, not to praise it.
So begins the tournament of foregone conclusions, three weeks supposedly devoid of drama with an ending already spoiled by a team that hasn't lost in nearly two full turns of the calendar, a team that hasn't seen its margin of victory sink into single digits during that time.
Something must be wrong for something to be this good, or so the thinking goes for those certain they could find the forest if not for the trees obstinately blocking the view.
There will be tournaments in the future with more intrigue, as there have been in the past, which is all the more reason to appreciate this one for what it offers.
It's a chance to appreciate a team that is considerably more than the sum of its not insubstantial parts. A chance to appreciate rooting for the Huskies if you're so inclined, and most definitely a chance for the majority to appreciate rooting against them. The Huskies aren't the continuation of the past or representative of the future of women's basketball. They belong to this moment.
And this moment is anything but a bad one for women's basketball.
Those whose hands were too occupied with wringing in the wake of Connecticut's dominance in reaching record-setting proportions on the eve of the NCAA tournament might have been better served holding a remote. Instead of worrying about the state of women's basketball, they might have tried watching a little more of it.
They might have seen South Dakota State hold off Oral Roberts in a 79-75 overtime thriller in the Summit League title game in front of 5,460 fans -- roughly 2,300 more patrons than stuck around for the men's final between Oakland and IUPUI. They might have found time on the day after Connecticut broke its own record for consecutive wins to mention Middle Tennessee's Alysha Clark scoring 48 points to lead her team past Arkansas-Little Rock and into the NCAA tournament.
Women's basketball as it exists outside of Storrs, Conn., is doing just fine. As fans around the country can attest, watching Nebraska's Kelsey Griffin, Stanford's Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Texas A&M's Danielle Adams, Iowa State's Alison Lacey and more names than will fit in this space over the next three weeks will still feel more like March Madness than the march of the condemned.
If women's basketball was regressing, a post player like Adams, whom Texas A&M coach Gary Blair likens to Charles Barkley, wouldn't have such soft hands or bring the crowd to its feet when she pulls up for a 3-pointer in transition. We wouldn't see Stanford's Kayla Pedersen, a 6-foot-4 wing who might have been confined to the post in another era. We wouldn't see a 6-1 point guard like Courtnay Pilypaitis, who grew up idolizing Connecticut, leading a mid-major program like Vermont into the NCAA tournament with realistic hopes of playing beyond the first weekend.
The talent pool is vastly deeper and the competition significantly better than it was when Texas went undefeated in 1986 or when Connecticut and Tennessee traded perfect seasons in the 1990s, better even than when the Huskies finished a perfect season in 2002. And what this Connecticut team is doing is worth appreciating precisely because it stands in stark contrast to the environment in which it exists.
This isn't a collection of the five best players in the country, as could have been argued of the 2002 team. It's a team with a remarkably small margin for error for a team with such a substantial average margin of victory.
Imagine that LeBron James and Dwight Howard didn't jump from high school to the NBA in back-to-back years, but instead played at the same college. Imagine that they played for a coach who knew just the right buttons to push to get them to play to the peak of their abilities for as many minutes as humanly possible. And imagine that he surrounded them with three or four borderline NBA talents -- players maybe a step too slow or a couple of inches too short to be guarantees at the next level but possessed of similar focus. And finally, imagine that the whole bunch gets along like family.
Do they win 72 games in a row by double digits by the end of their time together? Maybe not, but they probably come close. And not a lot of people would be asking if it's bad for basketball.
Tina Charles and Maya Moore are singular talents. That they play together with a cast so perfectly complementary -- an all-around linchpin like Kalana Greene, a potential star like Tiffany Hayes, a shooter like Caroline Doty, a spark like Lorin Dixon and a freshman X factor like Kelly Faris -- is why this run is a singular event, not an extension of an old story.
My earliest memories of sports involve cheering against Goliath, rooting for Denmark in the 1986 World Cup as much because it was the quintessential underdog as because it was where I was born. I argued endlessly that Dominique Wilkins was as good as Michael Jordan, contended Mario Lemeiux was better than Wayne Gretzky, saw a birthday spoiled by betting Andre Ware and the University of Houston could beat the University of Miami and built a veritable shrine to Fred McGriff, patron saint of the unspectacularly consistent. And if that sentiment was unique, "Hoosiers" would have been about Bobby Knight's undefeated team instead of Jimmy Chitwood and Hickory High.
Yet whether you root for the giant or against it, who would honestly suggest that soccer would be better without the Brazilians, basketball healthier if not for Michael Jordan or college football more entertaining without teams it feels good to despise? Part of sports is the reality that anything is possible. Part is also about a place in an imperfect world where perfection seems truly possible, if only for 40 minutes.
After demolishing North Carolina in January, Geno Auriemma said this of a nearly flawless first half against a team then ranked in the top 10.
"Today we tried to play a perfect game of basketball," Auriemma said. "Make every pass correctly, the right pass at the right time, every cut, make sure we rotate on defense -- make sure we do this, this and this. So we tried to do that, and for 20 minutes, we came pretty damn close."
That might not leave fans on the edge of their seats in the second half, but knowing the ending hasn't stopped people from going to see Shakespeare's plays for the past four centuries.
One of two things will happen in the next three weeks. Connecticut will complete its second consecutive undefeated season by winning the national championship, or another team will play the best game of basketball it has played all season, perhaps the best game it has ever played, and beat the team few if any think can be beaten.
Either way, there are no guarantees we'll see another run like it. Maybe that's also good for the future of the sport. It's definitely reason to appreciate the moment.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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