Sunday, February 18, 2018
Sports

Next Season Connecticut is planning to suit up Azurá Stevens

You don't know what to do with yourself, do you? Spring training isn't here yet, and who cares about Tom Brady's missing Super Bowl jersey, and golfers are still limbering up, and the NBA won't be decided until June. That leaves college basketball, which is sort of a mess with everyone but Gonzaga taking multiple losses. Then there are the UConn women, whom you wouldn't even think of looking at. Right? Which makes you a dope, for choosing boredom over excellence.

I'm talking to you, the guy who can't let a record pass without slighting it by saying, "Yeah but that's the women's game." You're cheating yourself, and you don't even realize it. Jay Bilas, who actually understands what he's watching in the UConn women, calls them the "most dominant program in the history of college basketball. Period."

If you want to turn away from that, go ahead, but Monday night, they won their 100th straight game, something no team — male or female — has ever done, and they did it with more flow, buff, and polish than any team you've ever seen, too.

UConn's trademark pouncing execution is the thing to watch. The Huskies make every opponent seem inferior: They've beaten 97 of 100 teams by double digits, and their average margin of victory during the streak is 38.4 points, and 25 of their wins have come by 50-plus points.

What's so interesting is that this particular team doesn't beat you with size or transcendent talent. They're a bunch of understudies, such as Gabby Williams, a 5-foot-10 forward who sat on the bench for two years. On Monday night the physical dominance belonged wholly to South Carolina, which had the 6-foot-5 All-American Aja Wilson, while UConn didn't put a preseason All-American on the floor — or even a starter over 6-1. But UConn played the elevated game in a 66-55 win, led by Williams with 26 points. You've never seen a team in the collegiate game — male or female — that does every little thing so relentlessly well.

"It's just, we let our guard down, and when you let your guard down a team like UConn is going to make you pay every time," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "Every time."

UConn's winning streak cause a lot of anxiety within women's basketball; the fact that they don't seem to have much competition isn't great for ratings. But what's going on is not about the poor quality of the rest of women's basketball: South Carolina is terrific; so is No.2 Maryland; so is Baylor.

What's going on at UConn is unique; there is something in the teaching of Geno Auriemma and longtime assistant Chris Daly that is producing basketball that's a cut above what you see in any other team, at any level, of either gender. The Kansas men don't cut and move with this much purpose on every play. Partly, this is because the four-year scholarship is still meaningful in the women's game, so that Auriemma has been able to ingrain habits from class to class.

"You figure it out right away," UConn guard Kia Nurse said. "And I think it's the way the vets teach you how we do every drill, how we lift, how we work out. And the importance of each little detail in what we do."

The inconsequential possession doesn't exist for UConn. They do nothing casually — ever. And they take advantage of every casual thing by their opponent. "We had lazy passes, and they made us pay for it," Staley said. There is never a single idle moment, never a drifting move, never a sluggish foot or a hand. They don't take even a piece of a play off. When they set a screen, it's a squared-up physical wall that creates instant open floor. There is no such thing as an indifferent dribble. Watch how they pass on the move, how hard they cut, how disciplined they space and how they fly up the floor.

A few years ago, I asked Auriemma to explain his method. He talked about tape on the floor and hitting marks, and endless drills until decisions are split-second so the ball never gets stuck, and he said it all while snapping his fingers: "Do it right, do it right, do it right, do it right, do it right." That snap is the pace with which they play. But maybe more enlightening was Daly, who said that Auriemma once spent three weeks drilling a single piece of offensive choreography without practicing anything else.

"How many people can get something consistently, exactly right for 30 straight minutes without making a mistake?" she asked.

Answer: Only one.

That's why a UConn team that was supposed to be rebuilding is instead a favorite to win a beyond-unprecedented 12th NCAA title. Many of the 100 games in the streak were won by last year's colossus, which had Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, who went 1-2-3 in the WNBA draft. But that makes what this group is doing more extraordinary. "If this would have been done by last year's team, I think it would have been less heroic because it would have been, 'Well of course they are supposed to do it. Look who they have,' " Auriemma said.

In an odd way, this could be one of UConn's most defining teams. It's revealing that the program isn't all about recruiting, isn't all about having the dominant player, isn't all about physical superiority. It's about method, approach, and playing the game as a kind of ethic. And that's something that should be of interest to anyone who cares about quality. — Washington Post

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