1. Sports

UConn women (86 straight basketball wins) say 'nah' to rebuilding year

Published Dec. 26, 2016

Brian Stewart told people so. For four historically triumphant years, he contended that the Connecticut women's basketball team was greater than the sum of coach Geno Auriemma's prize recruits, a conga line of achievers that included Stewart's daughter, once-in-a-generation talent Breanna.

Daddy Stewart — a recreational gym rat in his spare time from his job as a technician at a Syracuse hospital and a motivational conspirator in his daughter's career — could foresee the Connecticut beatdowns happening this season despite the exodus last spring of the players who would become the first three chosen in the WNBA draft.

He could even imagine that the Huskies, supposedly rebuilding after four consecutive national championships, would be where they are: 11-0, riding an 86-game winning streak, four victories shy of the NCAA record — women's and men's — that Connecticut established in 2010.

Well, he could almost imagine it.

"I probably would have thought they would already have lost one here or there," Stewart said. "They've had, you know, a pretty tough schedule."

Among the 11 victims are Florida State, Baylor, Notre Dame and Ohio State. All still ranked No. 12 or higher in last week's poll. Next up: a visit on Thursday night to unbeaten Maryland, ranked No. 3 in the USA Today coaches poll, and probably the last serious obstruction between the Huskies and the shattering of their record.

"To do what they're doing is a testament to the M.O. of the team and the program," Stewart said.

Which is, in his informed opinion?

"I personally know that Breanna was no princess there — just the opposite," he said. "So I'd say, 'Check your ego at the door. It's not about you.' "

This season, unavoidably, is about Auriemma, about putting to rest the notion that his record 11 career Division I titles (again, for men's and women's basketball) have primarily been about charismatically pitching to recruits and their parents.

It has also become, at least thus far, a thumbs-down rejoinder to the women's sports degraders, forever skeptical or outright dismissive of Connecticut's dominance, based on the false presumption that the Huskies seldom had worthy competition.

What the critics have failed to grasp, Stewart said, is that the success is as much about how Connecticut recruits as it is about whom.

"They go after more than basketball talent at UConn," Stewart said. "They recruit personalities driven to win."

After no lost games since November 2014, and after the graduations of Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck — the aforementioned top three draft picks — many had this season pegged as comeuppance for Connecticut, and even Auriemma called it in advance "a great unknown."

Before we go further, we must put comeuppance into proper UConn context.

Four rotation players did return, including Katie Lou Samuelson, the country's highest-rated 2015 recruit; a solid veteran in Kia Nurse; and two skilled forwards in Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams. The team also gained the nation's top point guard prospect, freshman Crystal Dangerfield.

Conversely, Auriemma had no preseason All-Americans, no front-line size which with to make the rim area a no-trespass zone and a bench that typically goes no deeper than two players. And his primary competitors, believed to be Baylor and Duke, were returning their most formidable players.

A betting person might have heeded the hopeful prophecy of Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who while paying homage to Auriemma said last spring: "Things eventually change. Next year they lose three great players and might lose in the Elite Eight, as if that would be horrible."

And that could happen, because this Connecticut team is not universally feared in the way last season's Huskies were.

In its opener at Florida State, Connecticut was one converted jumper from losing at the buzzer. The victory over Baylor required a breakout performance from the still froshlike, erratic Dangerfield. If the winning streak ends at Maryland, no one will be shocked.

Or devastated, in Auriemma's stated case.

"What's the difference if we win 90 or 91 or 92? Who cares?" he said after a 43-point annihilation of Nebraska last week. "We already won 90."

This, of course, was the coach playing it coy, having it both ways. Auriemma fully comprehends what another unbeaten season — or fifth consecutive championship — would mean for his already unmatched legacy.

Auriemma is, for now, still No. 1, and people, for once, are asking how.

The answers, in part, invariably point to him and his M.O.

The Huskies hustle: "I watch the games, and you can see it plain as day. They're running hard down the court when the other team is jogging," Brian Stewart said.

They pass: "They move the ball better than any team in the country," Jeff Mittie, the coach of Kansas State, said this month after the Huskies handed his team its first loss.

Intimidation: When DePaul visited UConn on Dec. 1, the Blue Demons were ranked No. 15 — and trailed after one quarter 37-6.

Growth: "Not everyone can be in that leading role," Auriemma said of his returnees before the season. "But some can't wait to start doing bigger parts. I think the four — Kia and Katie Lou, Gabby and Napheesa — they want bigger roles, but it's going to be a learning process."

They would appear to be acing a Berlitz course in basketball leadership, but certainly realize they have done nothing yet except to reinstall a burden of championship expectation that they will eventually feel.


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