Officially, the NCAA has 349 Division I women’s basketball programs.
In actuality, there are 348 — plus the University of Connecticut.
UConn operates in its own realm of college hoops, high above so-called competitors such as Notre Dame, Maryland and Stanford. The Huskies play in a universe that’s different than any other, occupied by no other team in any sport.
Is it good for women’s basketball?
It has no bearing. The sport carries on just fine outside of Storrs. Teams put together good-to-great seasons. Programs build, peak and rebuild. Top prep stars scatter themselves around the country.
None of that has anything to do with UConn, which has reached nine consecutive Final Fours, won 73 consecutive games and captured five of the last seven national titles — including the last three.
The Huskies’ dominance became a subject for debate (yet again) when Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote on Twitter over the weekend: “UConn Women beat Miss St. 98-38 in NCAA tourney. Hate to punish them for being great, but they are killing women’s game. Watch? No thanks.”
They definitely killed the Bulldogs, just like they’ve killed everybody on the schedule. UConn beat Texas, 86-65, in the Elite Eight and its average margin of victory this season is a whopping 40 points. Opponents have been vanquished in 120 of the last 121 games, none of them coming within single digits.
“The Huskies have no competition,” Shaughnessy wrote in a follow-up column after being excoriated for his tweet. “Sorry, but how can this be a good thing for women’s basketball?”
Again, it’s not about UConn.
Geno Auriemma’s program is a machine, a relentless beast that serves as the sport’s measuring stick. The Huskies are likely to rout Oregon State in Sunday’s semifinal and do likewise to either Syracuse or Washington in the championship. That would be Auriemma’s 11th national title, moving him past John Wooden for the most in NCAA basketball.
But not very long ago — just four years — Baylor went 40-0 and won the title. Texas A&M won the season before that. UConn was knocked out in the Final Four both times. When Maryland won the championship in 2006, it was during a four-season title drought for the Huskies, who reached “only” one Final Four in that span.
The point is women’s college basketball has an abundance of programs that can enjoy themselves when UConn isn’t on the other bench. Fans can relish plenty of dramatic, intense competition in games that don’t involve the Huskies, like when No. 1 seeds South Carolina and Notre Dame were upset in the Sweet 16 this week. It marked the third time in the last four seasons that a pair of No. 1 seeds lost in that round.
Blowouts can be terrible for TV ratings as viewers lose interest and see what else is on, but watching UConn carve up otherwise fine teams can be a treat, too, an opportunity for fans to marvel at history in the making. Every chance to see UConn is another chance to revel in its downright dominance and utter destruction of the best of the rest. The Huskies are 36-0 despite playing the nation’s hardest non-conference schedule.
Understandably, Auriemma gets a bit defensive when his program receives backhanded compliments — “You’re so good you’re bad” — or clunky comparisons to men’s hoops, particularly Wooden’s UCLA program that won 10 titles in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row.
Auriemma has a message for everyone who complains about UConn running roughshod over all comers. If the Huskies’ exemplary execution is boring, unbearable and unbecoming to you, there’s a simple solution.
“Don’t watch,” Auriemma told Shaughnessy, through reporters, after the Mississippi State blowout and the columnist’s incendiary tweet. “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.
“…We are where we are. We are what we are. You know? We do what we do.”
This isn’t the first time someone has asked about the overall strength of women’s basketball. The same things said about Auriemma and UConn were said about Pat Summitt and Tennessee when the Volunteers won six titles in 12 seasons from 1987 through 1998. No, Tennessee wasn’t routing every foe by 40 points, but the championship trophies kept ending up in Knoxville, which is the bottom line.
The Huskies are obliterating the sport presently but no dynasty is everlasting. You can’t tell by recent scores, but the field is creeping closer. Tennessee came back to the pack and so will UConn, just like every other collegiate superpower eventually leveled off.
Auriemma has to retire at some point. Even before then, some players will dream of beating the Huskies, not joining them. According to ESPN’s HoopGurlz recruiting rankings for 2015, seven of the top 15 players stayed in state or in region. The trend continued in the 2016 class, with nine of the top 15 recruits staying close to home, with the No. 1 and No. 2 players choosing Baylor and Texas.
UConn is just one school, in a league of its own where the best competition often comes in practice.
But there’s no shortage of interest among fans watching the 348 other schools fighting to catch up. At the moment, that’s where the real action resides.
And that’s more than enough for now as we watch history.