Of course this is the trouble with framing a debate around a tweet (something I try to avoid), but it also doesn’t really matter what he meant.
I’m not here to say if he was right or wrong. I don’t really care. While not exactly a new concept, it’s still an opinion that’s fair to express and a discussion worth having.
Does the dominance of Auriemma’s teams lessen the quality of the game overall? I can’t imagine anyone would argue it does. Is there any sensible way to make that case? Maybe, but I can’t think of one. Obviously there is no shortage of college teams out there trying to build a title contender.
Plenty of teams are shooting for UConn, and many more are out there looking to jump from whatever level of competitiveness they currently occupy to the next one.
Now, is the Huskies’ seeming invisibility bad for the growth of the popularity of the game? Probably so.
I certainly can’t blame anyone who looks at their scores and figures there’s no point in investing much time in watching the women’s tournament. There’s a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar these days, and every little bit hurts when it comes to trying to get noticed.
It’s one thing to wonder if a team like last year’s Kentucky men’s squad can go undefeated but another to be pretty certain UConn will. (Especially since we’ve seen multiple women’s teams — and not just Connecticut — go undefeated in recent years while no men’s team has done so in decades.)
In his response to Shaughnessy’s Tweet, Auriemma made reference to Tiger Woods dominating golf at the turn of the century, a worthwhile analogy no matter which side of this debate you fall on.
“When Tiger was winning every major, nobody said he was bad for golf. Actually, he did a lot for golf. He made everybody have to be a better golfer. And they did. And now there’s a lot more great golfers because of Tiger.”
I’m not sure if Tiger made golf significantly more popular (maybe he did, but I’m pretty sure it was already very popular), but he probably made it appeal to a broader audience.
Although I remember a time when he seemed to be unbeatable — at least in majors — he wasn’t inspiring people to turn off their TV sets. There was a reason to watch, whether it was to see someone do something that had never been done before or to root for him to get knocked off his perch.
Woods also set a new example of how to play the game at an elite level, and a new crop of talented players came along to challenge him eventually.
If anyone has done that for women’s basketball, it was probably Tennessee. The Lady Vols were the first dominant program of the tournament era, which started in the early 1980s. They set a standard for people who might not have thought about getting into the game before to aspire to.
It’s probably not a stretch to say Tennessee begat Connecticut. The Volunteers were deep into their run before the Huskies really got going.
With multiple historic winning streaks and now more national titles, the Huskies appear to have passed Tennessee as the best program of all time.
The thing about UConn is Auriemma’s teams aren’t great because he simply recruits better players than everyone else.
He certainly does recruit great players — and all of his great teams have been built around a transcendent one for her time period — but the Huskies’ dominance (as opposed to just winning a lot) is more a product of the culture he has put in place. “Culture” has become a cliche in sports, seemingly more so lately than I can recall in the past, but it’s really hard to miss the fact something different is going on when you watch Connecticut play.
I got to see it first-hand in November when the Huskies visited Ohio State. While coach Kevin McGuff has his Buckeyes on the upswing, they were thoroughly crushed 100-56 by Connecticut at Value City Arena.
It was striking because while Ohio State played competitive games on the road against South Carolina and Notre Dame —the second- and third-ranked teams in the country — the Buckeyes were knocked out early by Auriemma’s club in front of a big, friendly home crowd.
The results pretty much confirmed what most probably already at least suspected: This season there is UConn and everyone else.
The striking thing about UConn was that despite their status as the three-time defending champions, even though Auriemma had multiple players who were the best recruits coming out of their states as high school seniors, the Huskies played really, really hard. There were no letups. They were relentless on the defensive end and efficient on offense.
No matter who he put in the game, they played like they were at an open gym with one roster spot available. It was their first game of the season, but the defending champions played like there was no tomorrow.
Afterward, Auriemma was asked what makes his team so good at going on those knockout runs.
“I wish I had the definite answer to that — I really don’t,” he said before basically explaining it in full.
“I think it might have something to do with the intensity level that we bring that generally doesn’t waiver. So we’re not a spurt team. We don’t spurt and then stop and then try to pick up another spurt later and then stop. We play. And then when we have an opportunity to get one, it fuels us. And we just keep going. And we still back up a little bit. There were times we did some stuff that we’re not proud of, but we’re not one of these teams that when we get up a little bit we relax. I don’t have those kinds of players. We don’t practice like that and I don’t coach like that.”
So to me the idea Auriemma isn’t just building practically unbeatable teams because he plucks the top three or four players from the top of the recruiting lists every year is a good thing for the game. (For what it’s worth, he doesn’t dominate recruiting the way John Calipari and Nick Saban do.)
But another part of Auriemma’s response to Shaughnessy also shows the downside of dominance.
“Nobody’s putting a gun to your head to watch. So don’t watch. And don’t write about it. Spend your time on things that you think are important. If you don’t think this is important, don’t pay any attention to it. The fact that you have to comment on it, says something about you, doesn’t it? We are where we are. We are what we are. You know? We do what we do. We do what we do.”
I see where Auriemma is coming from, but to me more people watching and talking about women’s basketball is important for the growth of the sport, so one shouldn’t totally dismiss those who might lose interest because they already know who’s going to win.
It’s worth noting Woods lost more often than UConn does even when he was at the top of his game. There is only one “major” every year in college basketball, and a little more than a week from now, Huskies will have won six of the last eight with four undefeated seasons mixed in there. Last year, they beat Notre Dame by 10 points in the final. The year before that, it was a 21-point win over the Fighting Irish, and in 2013 they slipped by Louisville by 33 to claim the title.
That isn’t good for ratings. Lately it appears to be just one more thing that gets people talking about the wrong things.
On the other hand, it isn’t deterring anyone at Ohio State, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Maryland, etc. from trying to change the narrative next year, either.
Stanford’s win over North Carolina in the second regional final game played Tuesday night means a fourth Final Four in five years for Beavercreek’s Mikaela Ruef, who redshirted because of a foot injury early in her career.
Ruef joins Malina Howard (Twinsburg) and Chloe Pavlich (Cincinnati Sycamore) of Maryland as the three players from Ohio to earn a trip to Nashville.
Meanwhile, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer is headed to her 11th Final Four with the Cardinal since leaving Ohio State after the 1985 season, when she led the Buckeyes to the Elite 8.
VanDerveer coached Ohio State as women’s basketball became an officially sponsored Big Ten sport and led the Buckeyes to the first conference title.
Her top assistant at Stanford is Amy Tucker, the captain of the 1982 Ohio State squad that played in the first NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Ohio State came in second for Ruef, who has family on the West Coast and was also swayed by the opportunity to get a Stanford education. Interestingly, back then Ruef’s father told me VanDerveer talked to them about what great memories she had of her time at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes also went hard after Howard, who was ESPN’s No. 1 center prospect in her class two years ago, but she did not have Ohio State among her finalists when she chose the Terrapins.