Saturday, April 21, 2018
Sports

UConn vs. a WNBA team? Don't rush to comparisons

Greatness spawns comparisons. Greatness sets us off in search of touchstones. It is deep in the fabric of American sports. It is deep in human nature.

Sure, a team or player is great. But how great compared to this Hall of Famer or that dynasty? Invariably, a remark ignites the debate. In this case it was Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer following his 98-38 loss to UConn March 26 in the Bridgeport Regional.

"Today it felt like I was playing a WNBA team," Schaefer said. "I don't know what team in the league they can't compete with. They got all the pieces."

The words were striking. The Huskies are on the cusp of becoming the first team in women's Division I history to win four consecutive national championships. They are on the cusp of becoming the first basketball team, men's or women's, to win an 11th NCAA title. They have won 73 in a row, all by double figures, and arguably have the greatest player in college history.

So was Schaefer right? Washington Mystics guard Kara Lawson, WNBA All-Star, Olympic gold medalist and ESPN analyst, shook her head.

So is it bull?

"Yeah," Lawson said. "We hear it a lot in sports. People say, 'Oh, Alabama can beat whoever the crappy NFL team is.' Last year, it was, 'Kentucky men can beat the Sixers.' It's not how it is. There are 12 WNBA teams, 12 players. It's the most exclusive pro sport there is in terms of how hard it is to make it and how good you have to be in that league."

UConn beat a WNBA team?

"Not going to happen," Lawson said. "I just laughed at it. This UConn team has Breanna Stewart. That's why anybody is entertaining the conversation in the slightest, because they have a superstar player."

Lawson says, regardless of what happens in the Final Four, Stewart is the greatest player in women's college basketball history.

"Next year are you going to say UConn can (beat a WNBA team)?" Lawson said. "No. It's because of her presence. She is going to walk into the league and be one of the 10 best players from day one. She's great. But she doesn't play with other people at that level. I don't want to demean them in the slightest. (The Huskies) have other good players who could eventually go on and have great pro careers."

Annually, ESPN brings its top analysts to meet with the media on the eve of the Final Four. Annually, Lawson, Rebecca Lobo, Doris Burke bring their A game.

"Could UConn win a game against a particular WNBA team?" asked Burke, who played at Providence. "I would think probably, but if you were going to play a series against them? Absolutely not.

"You're talking about more experienced players. Scouting at the WNBA level is very high. They expose weaknesses very quickly. I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility they could win a game, but if you're asking me if they can compete consistently, the answer is no."

Lobo played in UConn's first perfect season in 1995 and went on to play in the WNBA. Asked how this UConn team would fare in the WNBA, Lobo answered, "Not well. WNBA players are really, really good.

"Stewie is a WNBA player. So are Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. Right now, nobody else is.

The comparison annoyed Lawson. She doesn't hide it.

"I don't think people respect the athletes who are in the WNBA, respect the fact there are players who have played 10 years pro," Lawson said. "These are grown women who have worked on their craft a lot. To say flippantly like Schaefer did, 'Oh, a college team could beat (a WNBA team)' is disrespectful to all the players in the league. But if I lost by 60 I might be saying something like that, too."

If you're looking at a one-game argument, you'd need to specify the circumstances, of course.

"First of all what rules are you playing by?" Lawson said. "If you're playing by WNBA rules, that's a long 3-point shot. WNBA rules, Stewie can't sit in the lane and block everybody's shot because she's got to be outside. There is defensive three seconds. WNBA rules, you can be more physical. You can mob. You can attack different players. If you play by college rules and Brittney Griner doesn't have three seconds, good luck with that."

Size, strength, physical and game maturity, the depth of all of those attributes on a WNBA roster ... you don't need to be John Wooden or Geno Auriemma to see it.

"We all compare, that's what we do," Lawson said. "You see something as dominant as what UConn has accomplished, it's so great that you want to think of something greater that it can touch.

"Forget all that. Stop comparing. Just look at it and say, 'This is crazy. We're in the middle of something we've never seen' and celebrate (UConn) and talk about how amazing it is." — Hartford Courant (TNS)

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