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UConn's greatness not necessarily a boon for the sport

Published Apr. 5, 2015

It has lost one game in two seasons. It has dismantled teams by embarrassing scores: 115-26, 117-44, 102-43. It has won an NCAA Tournament game by 51 points. Its average margin of victory this season — an incredible 42.5 points.

Yes, the UConn women's basketball team is good. Really good.

Too good.

So good that the Huskies are bad — bad for women's basketball. They have taken the drama and intrigue out of the game and replaced it with monotony and foregone conclusions.

UConn has turned college basketball into its own personal chew toy.

The Huskies are on the verge of their third consecutive national title and fifth in seven years. This is their eighth straight trip to the Final Four and 16th since 1991. Impressive, almost unbelievable numbers, but you can't help but ask: Has it been bad for the overall popularity of the women's game?

"I would like to think what we've done over the course of the last 10 years or so has been really good for the popularity of the game," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I think the attention that comes from being really good and having a certain standard that we set, and a certain level of recognition, I think it has been good in that sense."

Sure, it has been great for UConn. Even the casual sports fan knows of UConn's utter dominance over college basketball and that, in itself, has brought attention to the women's game.

UConn's rare losses or even brushes with defeat have become the intriguing story of every women's basketball season, often even bigger than UConn winning another national title.

You can't blame Auriemma and the Huskies for building a dynasty that rivals any in the history of sports. And it isn't as if the Huskies are cheating or doing something that no other team is capable of doing.

UConn should be admired, respected, applauded for what it has done. This is in no way meant to be a criticism or a call for UConn to do something different.

But it feels like UConn is a windshield and the rest of women's basketball is full of bugs. It can leave the rest of college basketball disheartened, and fans wondering not if UConn will win, but by how much?

Maybe, Auriemma thinks, that can be a good thing. It forces everyone else to either, as the commercial says, build quickly or be destroyed quickly. Auriemma talks about how coaches and athletic directors can use UConn as a template. If Auriemma can do all this in Storrs, Conn., no other coach has an excuse.

"Aren't we tired of it? I think everybody's rooting for us," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "…Our sport needs it, to be quite honest. But at the same point, it's up to us as coaches and programs to be able to develop our teams and our programs to that point."

Auriemma points to other Final Four programs such as South Carolina and Notre Dame. Both, in an effort to hang with UConn, have greatly improved. Ten years ago, the Gamecocks went 8-21 and here they are in their first Final Four. The Irish have gone from an okay program to an outstanding one in its fifth consecutive Final Four.

Then again, UConn played both this season, beating South Carolina by 25 points and Notre Dame by 18. So how close has that gap really become?

Every sport has its powers. The Spurs are good every season. So are the Patriots and Red Wings. And men's college basketball has its group of usual suspects who are in the national championship conversation year after year. Auriemma mentions this year's Final Four on the men's side, made up of Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

"Lots of shockers there, huh?'' he said.

Like the men, there are plenty of traditionally good women's programs — Notre Dame, Baylor, Stanford, Louisville and, of course, Tennessee, among them.

But UConn is miles ahead of all. Then it becomes a chicken-and-egg deal. UConn wins because it gets the best players and it gets the best players because it wins.

"And it's up to everyone else to catch up," Auriemma said. "And I think the catching up is happening. We're not invincible. We're not unbeatable.''

UConn did lose to Stanford in November (in overtime, by two) but that feels like a fluke now and not a dent in UConn's armor.

"They're a dynasty. You've got to respect them. … I think it's good for women's sports to see that," Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd said. "And in the time you have the opportunity to play them, you have a chance to learn from them, whether you lose or win."

Every dynasty comes to an end at some point, every program eventually hits a dry spell. It doesn't feel, however, as if UConn is close to the bottom of the well, not as long as the 61-year-old Auriemma is there.

"I just think that we've been on an amazing run and it's going to end,'' Auriemma said. "Somebody is going to knock us off, maybe this weekend, who knows? And we'll have to start all over at some point and build it back up.''

Until then, UConn rolls along, collecting titles and leaving everyone else to wonder if it is good or bad for the game.

"I hope it's good,'' Auriemma said. "All the naysayers are going to say it's bad. I'm sure half the people in women's basketball want us to lose. Maybe more than half.''

UConn losing this weekend would be bad for UConn. But it might be good for the rest of women's college basketball.