- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey swear they don't say this as any kind of motivational ploy to boost their current Huskies. But when you ask them about the best UConn team ever, they still return to a decade ago.
Before the injuries to Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova, the consensus of the Huskies' brain trust -- and typically also of UConn's legion of fans -- is that the 2000-01 team, intact, was the best ever.
But because those injuries did happen, the mantle goes to UConn 2001-02, the 39-0 team of future WNBA champions/Olympic gold medalists Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Swin Cash, plus fellow WNBA first-round draft picks Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams.
"The best-ever starting five" is how Dailey describes that team, the group so good that UConn couldn't help thinking as long as the Huskies arrived at the correct arena for each game, they were going to win. Nothing short of an evil plot to trick them into going to the wrong place was going to result in a defeat.
Now, though, as the 2009-10 UConn team stands one game away from winning the program's seventh national championship, finishing a second consecutive undefeated season and extending its victory streak to 78 games, that confounded "ranking question" comes up, of course.
If Connecticut beats Stanford on Tuesday (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), where does this group of Huskies rank on the almighty UConn totem pole?
"It's flattering for us to be compared, but I could never see myself on the same playing field as them," Huskies senior Kalana Greene said of the 2002 team. "Coach always says, 'We're trying to be better than the next team we play.' So [Tuesday], we're trying to be better than Stanford. Last night, we were trying to be better than Baylor.
"So who cares if we're better than the 2002 team? You know? I didn't come here to be better than the 2002 team. I came here to win a national championship. And that's the only thing I think about. I've done it once, but it would feel great to do it twice."
'A certain amount of perfection in your effort'
"Who cares?" is actually a perfect answer from Greene about this whole ranking business. UConn 2010 will never play UConn 2002. Or UConn 2000. Or UConn 1995. Although Greene does like to joke -- undoubtedly to tease Huskies alums such as Rebecca Lobo and Kara Wolters -- that she'd feel pretty confident taking on the undefeated '95 squad.
For that matter, UConn 2010 will never meet Louisiana Tech 1981 (pre-NCAA era) or Texas 1986 or Tennessee 1998. Yet there is an irresistible temptation to compare these Huskies to their predecessors both in Storrs and in the sport's history.
"I'm not surprised that this team wins. It's just the way that they've done it," said Dailey, who has been with Auriemma at UConn since he came to the program in 1985. "I just think it's a credit to this particular group. Because we lost a lot from last year. In losing Renee Montgomery, we lost a big part of our personality. This group has taken it upon themselves to replace that -- first by committee, and then by individuals who became what we needed them to be."
Indeed, Montgomery graduated and moved on to the WNBA, but the perfect record has stayed intact.
"I think sometimes the whole 'perfect' thing gets bandied around, and it means different things to different people, you know?" Auriemma said. "The only thing I've ever tried to impress upon my players is there's a certain amount of perfection in your effort. The perfection, I don't think, lies in what the outcome is. There's a certain effort that requires a certain amount of perfection. You're looking for the perfect way to consistently have that effort.
"That at the end of 40 minutes, if your effort was unwavering and you never ever took a step back, lost your concentration or just decided 'I don't feel like it,' or for whatever reason didn't have that same commitment to every possession, I don't care about the outcome. And I think sometimes that gets lost."
Sure it does, because UConn has turned that quest for perfect effort into so many victories. Very rarely has Auriemma had to face his players after a game to say, "I think you did everything you could. It just wasn't enough."
It's not as if that has never happened. Go back to an unforgettable national semifinal game in 1996, when UConn lost 88-83 in overtime to Tennessee. Afterward, Auriemma asked his players if anyone deserved to win that game more than his seniors Jennifer Rizzotti and Jamelle Elliott. When the Huskies, in tears, shook their heads, Auriemma asked, "What about Michelle Marciniak and Latina Davis?"
That was Tennessee's senior backcourt, and they had fallen in the title game to UConn's perfect team in 1995. And Auriemma was acknowledging to his team that its opponent had worked just as hard to win, too.
That's a consistent refrain from Auriemma over the years. Nobody forgets "We got Diana and you don't." But people should also remember that Auriemma appreciates the efforts of his foes, too.
For instance, his thoughts on Stanford sophomore Nneka Ogwumike.
"I really appreciate and admire kids who take the responsibility of being a college athlete seriously," he said. "I watched her play as a freshman. Then I saw her on film as a sophomore before we played them in December. And I just thought it was a completely different player.
"She took the responsibility that was put on her seriously -- to get better. And a lot of kids don't do that. They just take it for granted, or they just expect that it's going to happen without their having to work at it. And I just love everything about the kid: who she is, how she conducts herself, how she competes. I can't say enough about her, really."
Bottom line, Auriemma appreciates real effort. He recognizes it in his coaching opponent Tuesday, Tara VanDerveer. UConn beat Stanford in the national semifinals on the way to finishing that first perfect Huskies season, in 1995.
Back then, you wouldn't have called the relationship between Auriemma and VanDerveer very warm, for a variety of reasons. Including what Auriemma perceived as dismissive remarks that VanDerveer made about top UConn recruit Nykesha Sales and about Lobo as one of the players on the 1996 Olympic team she coached.
Now, though, while Auriemma and VanDerveer wouldn't be classified as close pals, they clearly respect each other and like the way the other's team plays.
"It's just a matter of people getting older and, you know, a lot of water passes under the bridge, I guess they say," Auriemma said. "I've always had tremendous respect for Tara as a coach. I really didn't know her that well as a person, but we spent a lot of time talking over the years. And it's kind of one of the reasons why this series that we had with them is going to be a good series for both of us. She doesn't shy away from challenges, and neither do I.
"They're in some ways a reflection of her, and my team's a reflection of me. And we all live happily ever after."
Admiring the past, not competing with it
But life at UConn has been particularly happy these past two seasons. Even Auriemma has not been able to conjure up much of his "I'm miserable even when we win" humor, because the Huskies of 2008-10 simply haven't given him any reason to feel bad.
They have won every game by double digits: 77 in a row. Even on a team with two superstars in Maya Moore and Tina Charles -- players who have shared the major individual awards this season without the slightest ripple of friction -- there is a sense of nose-to-the-grindstone team unity. It is so sincere and profound that it makes even the cold-blooded relentlessness of their success stay a heartwarming story.
Well if people let it be that. Admittedly, there are women's hoops followers who are, as Auriemma says, just plain sick of the Huskies. There are those who don't follow the sport but helicopter in with opinions about how the other teams in women's basketball must be lousy if UConn has won so many games by double-digit margins.
Through it all, though, the Huskies have said the same things. The perfection they seek is in effort. It's in showing that you owe it to yourself, your teammates, your family, your school, your sport to play hard all the time. When you're up by 40 or when you're trailing. And yes, the Huskies have even done a little bit of that during this streak, too.
Sure, if UConn wins another title, there are bound to be the comparisons to past teams. But not really in the minds of these Huskies themselves. For them, the past teams are to be honored, not challenged.
"There is a lot of respect there," Moore said. "There is a sense of awe of what they have done. I don't look at us as competing against them, but we really want to make them proud."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
UConn stands one win away from the program's seventh title, capping a second consecutive undefeated season and extending its victory streak to 78 games. But these Huskies are admiring the past, not competing with it.