TAMPA – It was a couple of weeks ago, after the UConn women had beaten USF, as usual. UConn’s coach, the face of women’s basketball, wanted to warn us.
“The next time you see me, I might be in the stands here for the first time,” Geno Auriemma said.
The Final Four, the biggest show in the women’s game, is a little more than a week away from descending on Tampa Bay for the third time in 11 years. The championship is up for grabs, so much so that Auriemma, who has won a record 11 national titles, thinks he might be a spectator.
Now that is up for grabs.
The last of the Sweet 16 field was set Monday. Lo and behold, Auriemma and second-seeded UConn have made it through — for the 26th consecutive year. The Huskies also have been to 11 consecutive Final Fours. I’m not sure they can even hold this thing without UConn, without Auriemma as ringmaster. Auriemma lists Tampa Bay as a 1 seed.
“I think it’s one of the best hosts in the country,” he said. “The people are fantastic. The hotels are fabulous. The location is so that you’re not far from anything. Who wouldn’t want to come down here for five days in late March, early April?”
Auriemma is biased. He has been to both previous Tampa Final Fours. There was 2008, when UConn lost to Stanford in the national semifinal. There was history anyway, as Tennessee won the championship, the late great Pat Summit’s seventh and final title.
And there was 2015, when UConn, led by All-American Breanna Stewart, won its third of four consecutive national titles, with Auriemma tying UCLA legend John Wooden with his 10th national title.
“I’ve had great times here,” Auriemma said. “We won it here and we lost it here.”
If Auriemma gets his Huskies here again, I think he gets to absentee vote for mayor. He loves this place.
“It has all the elements. You’ve got a great organization, a great arena, everything is right there for you and you’ve got the destination.
“This place, I even pushed for it as a rotating host. I wanted it like the bowl games. The cities didn’t all want to do it. But I said pick four or five cities, Tampa, San Antonio, New Orleans and Indianapolis (NCAA headquarters), because we have to go up there. Maybe Denver. Each year, you’re either going to get a regional or a Final Four.”
He promises an open field for the title.
“The best teams used to be unreachable. You couldn’t touch them. … Those four years Stewie was with us, it was a foregone conclusion that we were going to win it. Now, it isn’t even a foregone conclusion that someone is an odds-on favorite to win it.”
It has been three whole years since UConn won a national title. But once upon a time …
“We came here in 2008, we hadn’t been to the Final Four in three years,” Auriemma said. “A lifetime for Connecticut fans. We didn’t go in ‘05, ‘06 or ‘07. In 2008, Maya (Moore) was a freshman. We had a pretty good team, but we weren’t ready yet. We had two serious injuries, we lost two starters, and Stanford beat us.”
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“I said after, ‘We’re going to come back and we’re going to be a different team.’ And we went undefeated in 2009 and 2010. 2008, this is where it started. (2015) was three in a row.”
After UConn beat USF, some UConn fans near the Huskies locker room said they’d see Auriemma soon. He smiled.
“I’m telling you, this is the first time. There’s a 50-50 chance we’re not coming. We’ve been to 11 in a row. Our fans, they never go to regionals. They save their money for the Final Four.”
UConn plays in the East Region Sweet 16 beginning Friday. The Huskies will have to get past UCLA to possibly force a matchup with top see Louisville, which beat UConn during the season.
Auriemma will be in Tampa one way or another, on the UConn bench or attending the games. A lot of other people will head for Tampa Bay, which knows how to host shows like this. This one promises to be a doozy.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly