UConn, Geno Auriemma raising the bar in women’s game more important than Wooden comparisons

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UConn looks to move to 10-0 in national title games (AP)

With the juggernaut that is No. 1 UConn a victory over No. 1 Notre Dame away from earning its tenth national title, one of the focuses will be the achievements of head coach Geno Auriemma. A win would also be his tenth national title, matching the number reached by the late John Wooden at UCLA. Are there differences in the ways the two great coaches went about their business? Sure there are, and Auriemma said as much during the team’s press conference Monday afternoon.

“Well, we are a lot different. Come from different eras, different backgrounds,” Auriemma said. “I couldn’t tell you one piece of that pyramid, because at the time that I was growing up and they were winning every game, I was more interested in, you know, how good Mike Warren was.

“I was more interested in how Valley shot the ball or why Shackleford was so good, or, holy s***, they’ve got Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe and they’re still winning like that. So I didn’t pay attention to the other stuff.”

When it comes to Auriemma’s work, focusing on how he compares to Wooden shouldn’t come at the expense of acknowledging how he’s transformed UConn basketball into the program that currently sets the bar in women’s college basketball.

A young program that didn’t play its first season of college basketball until the 1974-75 campaign (it isn’t all that uncommon for programs to be that young, with Title IX being signed into law in 1972), UConn women’s basketball tallied just one winning season prior to Auriemma’s move to Storrs. Auriemma won the program’s first Big East title in his third season at the helm, and two years later the Huskies made their first Final Four appearance.

While it took more four years for the program to win its first national title, with Rebecca Lobo and company running the table (35-0) and beating Tennessee in the title game, the work then set the stage for UConn moving forward. Not only did they engage in a chase for supremacy in the sport with a Tennessee program that under Pat Summitt set the bar, UConn eventually caught up and raised that bar even higher.

Detractors may use that dominance as an excuse to not tune in, citing the product as being “boring” and lacking intrigue, the excellence of those elite programs has helped boost others as well. While UConn has dominated the trophy count of late, winning four of the last six national titles (Huskies have won eight since 2000, with the rest of the country getting seven), other programs have stepped forward.

Notre Dame, their opponents Tuesday night, won a national title in 2001 and has been in each of the last five Final Fours and other national champions (who didn’t win one prior to UConn’s first in 1994-95) include Baylor (twice), Maryland and Texas A&M.

The Fighting Irish have enjoyed success against UConn in the past, having won seven of the last eleven meetings and holding a 3-2 record against the Huskies in national semifinal/title games (all three wins coming in the semis). It’s a game they look forward to, and it’s one that has helped Muffet McGraw build her program into one of the nation’s best. With that being the case, they won’t show up at Amalie Arena in Tampa looking to participate in some kind of coronation, but there is an understanding of what this matchup has done for all involved.

“I like playing UConn.  It’s definitely a learning experience,” Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd said Monday. “Winning and losing against them, whatever it is, you learn so much and it really‑‑ I think it’s good. Every time we’ve played them, it’s always been a good battle. That’s what you want for women’s sports.”

UConn entered the Final Four as prohibitive favorites, and that remains the case ahead of the national title game. National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart leads the way for a team with three first team All-Americans (Moriah Jefferson and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis being the others) and a fourth player in Morgan Tuck who many, including McGraw, believe is deserving of such praise herself.

With that kind of talent comes the pressure of expectation, especially with UConn have a 9-0 record in championship games, but that’s something the program’s had to navigate for quite some time. However being undefeated in title games isn’t an achievement that’s taken lightly, even with the amount of success that the Huskies have experienced.

“You don’t realize while you’re doing it, but when you bring it up like that and you really force yourself to look back, man, I really can’t explain it either.  Can’t explain it,” Auriemma said Monday when asked about the 9-0 record in title games.

“And I said this [Sunday], for those of you that were here, it’s going to end,” Auriemma continued. “It might end tomorrow. Might end if we’re in that situation next year, following year. This isn’t something that’s going to last forever. Not going to win every single championship game that we’re in, if we’re in some more, but up to this point, man, it is something that’s really hard to explain. And I’m just incredibly grateful.”

One year after going 40-0, UConn is one victory away from winning a third straight national title and putting together a three-year stretch of 113 wins and five losses. While some will point to that dominance as an example of what’s “wrong” with women’s college basketball, the fact of the matter is that it isn’t their responsibility to make sure everything’s “even” like in youth sports (in some cases, not all) where every kid gets a ribbon for showing up.

Other programs have worked to reach UConn’s level and will continue to do so, which can only be a positive for the sport moving forward. UConn’s “job” is to set the bar, not make sure that others can reach it, and that is the case for great teams/programs in any sport. For that achievement, Auriemma and his program should be commended.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.