- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS — Geno Auriemma finds himself right in the middle of another gender battle.

As the Hall of Fame coach spent Wednesday trying to tamp down the debate over the first Final Four with all male coaches, Auriemma also acknowledged that UConn’s dynasty is being viewed differently largely because it’s a female sport.

“The people who write, for the most part, are men,” Auriemma said during a national conference call. “The people who follow sports a lot that have opinions, that are quick to voice their opinions, are men. So, the easy answer — I’m not saying it’s the right answer — the easy answer is it’s a male bias. That’s easy. And, because we’re in the news when we do something, and we’ve been in the news and we’re thrown out there against a lot of people’s wishes, it’s like it’s as if it’s our fault. Or that the women’s game is not a sport, that it’s a joke.”

It’s not the first time Auriemma’s strong opinions have made headlines. It’s almost certain it won’t be the last.

Last April, also in the lead up to the Final Four, Auriemma described men’s basketball as “boring.” In October 2012, he called for lowering rims for women’s basketball.

Now, with Auriemma needing two wins to become the first Division I women’s basketball coach to capture four consecutive national titles, there are loud discussions about the impact on the sport of UConn’s continued dominance.

Critics contend the 73-game winning streak, the record-breaking 22-game NCAA tournament winning streak, and the continual blowouts have turned off casual fans because there’s little drama when the Huskies step on the court. Inside the sport, the dynasty is viewed as more a challenge than a problem.

“I am one of these people that’s not buying into this whole [conversation that] UConn doing what they’re doing is bad for the game,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. “It’s been great for the game. It’s raised everybody’s level up to where we have what we have this year: Three new people in the Final Four because we’ve all been able to use their success as a little part of the formula to get there.”

In many ways, this weekend could be a pivotal moment for women’s basketball.

Oregon State, Syracuse and Washington have broken up the usual championship weekend monopoly, marking the first time since 1994 that three newcomers will play in the same Final Four.

Two-time national player of the year Breanna Stewart and her senior teammates, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, can become the first players in Division I basketball history — men or women — to win four national championships.

Syracuse’s Quentin Hillsman will become the first black man to coach a Final Four team since Cheyney’s Winthrop McGriff in 1984.

“It’s significant, and you want to downplay it, but you kind of can’t because it is what it is,” Hillsman said. “It’s a big responsibility and it’s an honor and it’s really humbling.”

And, in the most compelling story line this weekend, coach Scott Rueck has taken Oregon State from open tryouts to the national semifinals in six years.
Next up, the Beavers face their toughest test of all: Dethroning the three-time national champs.

“They operate at such an efficient level, and if you look at their turnover ratio, it will blow your mind,” Rueck said. “If you look at their shot percentage, it blows your mind, and if you look at where they take shots from, they get a lot of layups.”

Auriemma is the architect. He has become the sport’s most recognizable personality and he can no longer distance himself from questions he doesn’t want to answer.

Asked about the significance of having four male coaches at this weekend’s games, Auriemma credited the coaches for their accomplishments and suggested any additional discussion would take away from the games in Indianapolis.

When it’s time to discuss his team and its possible place in history, the blunt-talking Auriemma responds in trademark fashion.

“If there was a women’s professional football league, maybe they would compare it to the [New England] Patriots, but there isn’t. If there was a baseball league, maybe they would compare it to the Yankees. I don’t know,” he said. “I just know that what we do is really, really hard to do, and for those out there that don’t appreciate it, that’s fine. I’m not asking you to, but don’t demean those that do appreciate it. That’s all.”

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