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.