The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team is the most dominant American sports team that’s popular enough to be televised regularly. (Alas, there is not yet a cable channel devoted to the Carmel High School girls’ swim team.) Barring the biggest upset in the history of women’s college basketball, this Tuesday UConn will win its fourth straight national title, sixth in eight years, and 10th in 17 years. To put its feats in perspective, consider that the legendary University of Tennessee women have lost fewer than two games in a season just once. Under coach Geno Auriemma, UConn has now done that 10 times.
Even by UConn’s standards, these past four years have been absurdly great. When Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck arrived in Storrs, Connecticut, in the fall of 2012, they joined a program that had lost five games the previous season and had failed to reach the national title game six of the past eight years. In that first season for Stewart and co., UConn lost four games and entered the NCAA Tournament as a clear underdog. Since the start of that tournament, the Huskies’ record is 121–1, and all 121 wins—including Sunday night’s 80–51 win over Oregon State in the national semifinals—have been by double digits. Stewart, Jefferson, and Tuck haven’t just won every game they’ve played in the NCAA Tournament; in four years, they’ve never come close to losing any of those 23 games. Congratulations, Notre Dame, on losing by just 10 points in the 2015 title game!
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about how UConn’s greatness is bad for the women’s game. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a privilege to watch a team that’s among the best ever. All five of the team’s starters can drain threes, so defenders can’t sag off anyone. Closing off the perimeter leaves the paint open for post-ups by Stewart and Tuck, who are each unguardable one on one, or for drives by Jefferson, who no defender can keep out of the lane. Given these advantages, UConn could run simple, stagnant sets aimed to exploit mismatches. Instead, their offense is a symphony of clever screens, cuts, ball movement, and player movement.
The Huskies’ defense is even better. Jefferson is the best perimeter defender I’ve ever seen in women’s college basketball, and Stewart sometimes seems disappointed in herself when she merely blocks a shot but doesn’t also recover it to start UConn’s break. The other three starters range from competent to rock solid, and the team gets even better defensively when Gabby Williams comes off the bench. Remarkably, UConn leads the country in both scoring offense (88.2 points per game) and scoring defense (48.3 points per game).
Maybe all this greatness leaves you cold. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who turns off the TV in disgust when Secretariat charges out to a 31-length victory or Tiger Woods wins the U.S. Open by 15 strokes. If you’re that kind of killjoy, then I have good news for you: The Huskies’ dominant run will end after Tuesday’s championship game.
Stewart, who could win her fourth Final Four Most Outstanding Player award, will graduate this year along with Jefferson and Tuck. With the Huskies’ championship core likely all gone—Tuck could choose to stay for one more season; more on that later—next year’s squad will not be favored to win the title, much less to grind the rest of the country into dust.
We’ve seen this before. UConn won four of the five national titles from 2000 to 2004 thanks to Sue Bird, Swin Cash, and Diana Taurasi. The Huskies then won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 thanks to Maya Moore and Tina Charles. Now, they’re about to win four straight thanks to Stewart, Jefferson, and Tuck. What happened in between those minidynasties? After Taurasi graduated, UConn didn’t even reach the Final Four for three straight years. That changed when Moore showed up, but as great as she was, she lost in the Final Four as both a freshman and a senior. After Moore graduated, UConn lost five games the next season, including another loss in the Final Four. Then Stewart and co. arrived, and UConn’s winning not only resumed but reached an unprecedented level.
Now that Stewart is leaving, the question is whether UConn’s immediate future will be more like the post-Taurasi era, with its several years of noncontention, or the post-Moore era, with its relatively quick return to greatness.
At the moment, it’s looking like the post-Stewart era might be something in between, featuring teams that contend but are a far cry from the dominant squads people have come to expect from UConn. The next Huskies superstar in the line of Taurasi, Moore, and Stewart isn’t on the horizon. If such a player exists, it might be high school junior Megan Walker, a 6-foot-1 wing who’s considered the top prospect in the class of 2017. But rumors are that Walker is likely to choose Notre Dame over UConn. If that happens, the Huskies would be missing the kind of superstar who has led their title runs.
Even if they don’t have the best player in the country, UConn will still have stars. Current freshman Katie Lou Samuelson, who broke a bone in her left foot against Oregon State, was the No. 1 high school recruit last year, and although she isn’t Taurasi, Moore, or Stewart, she’s still very good. So are UConn’s current freshman Napheesa Collier, the No. 6 overall recruit last year, and incoming recruit Crystal Dangerfield, who is the No. 3 prospect in the class of 2016. Rising juniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams will also be solid starters that any team would love to have.
But UConn will have virtually no depth at all behind those five players, and that’s assuming those five are healthy. Even if that quintet stays intact, the Huskies won’t have an overwhelmingly starry collection of talent. Notre Dame and South Carolina each entered this year’s NCAA Tournament with only one loss—both to UConn, naturally—and each will return a player-of-the-year candidate in the Irish’s Brianna Turner and the Gamecocks’ A’ja Wilson. Baylor also entered this year’s tournament with just one loss, and it adds next year’s No. 1 recruit, Lauren Cox. Texas, which lost to UConn by just 21 points in this year’s Elite Eight—that’s not intended to be a slight; the Longhorns kept it impressively close—will add two potential stars this fall. All of these teams and others will be primed to capitalize on UConn’s huge personnel losses.
Given UConn’s prolonged success, you might wonder why Auriemma’s post-Stewart recruiting classes haven’t equaled the ones that netted all those titles. It’s hard to say much with certainty, but one possibility is that the brilliance of Stewart, Jefferson, and Tuck discouraged recruits for a couple of years, as high school prospects knew that shots and playing time would be scarce. More significant is the fact that recruits usually stay near home, and most elite female high school basketball players hail from Texas, California, and the Southeast. Since Stewart—a native of Syracuse, New York—graduated from high school in 2012, there have been zero Top 10 recruits from the Northeastern United States.
Sometimes UConn overcomes that obstacle, as it did when it plucked Taurasi out of California, Moore out of Georgia, and Jefferson out of Texas. But more often than not, the hometown school wins—and sometimes Notre Dame does, too, as it did with Texas native Brianna Turner and may do again with Megan Walker, who lives in Virginia. (Top recruits also sometimes eschew UConn, Notre Dame, and their home states for Stanford. The Texan sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, both brainy superstars, made that choice.)
To some degree, a program’s success depends on where the best players happen to come from in a given year. UConn won its first title in 1995 behind Rebecca Lobo, who was born in Connecticut and raised nearby in Massachusetts. The Huskies’ next two title teams were led by New Yorker Sue Bird and Pennsylvanian Swin Cash, with help from New Jersey’s Asjha Jones. And as great as Maya Moore was, she may well never have won a title without the help of fellow No. 1 recruit Tina Charles, a New Yorker.
Other basketball powers also rely on the luck of the regional draw. Notre Dame has recruited well nationally, but its recent run of success started when home-state hero Skylar Diggins enrolled there in 2009. Baylor won the latest non-UConn title thanks to Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims, both from Texas. And South Carolina is thriving with home-state star A’ja Wilson.
What separates UConn is that it has done a better job than other schools at nabbing out-of-region superstars, including massively important ones like Taurasi and Moore. And crucially, it has also done better at cashing in when it’s had the most talent. Griner was about as great a player as anyone ever, but in the three years she played alongside Sims, Baylor reached the Final Four only once. By contrast, Taurasi won three titles at UConn, and Stewart is about to win her fourth. Auriemma’s greatness lies not just in recruiting but also in developing talent. He attracts the best players, then molds them and their supporting casts into invincible juggernauts that almost never lose games—especially tournament games—that they’re supposed to win.
If there’s one thing Auriemma hasn’t done, it’s win a title without a transcendent player. The next few years will present that opportunity. While Samuelson is terrific, she reminds me more of a complementary star like Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis rather than a transformational talent like Taurasi, Moore, or Stewart or a national player of the year like Lobo or Bird. All UConn will have, then, is one of the greatest coaches ever in any sport, and a group of players excellent enough to contend—not dominate, but contend—every year. Could Auriemma squeeze a national championship out of those teams? I’d love to find out, but he might not feel the same way.
Having guided this graduating class to a perfect four national titles, and looking ahead to a major rebuilding project, the 62-year-old coach could see this as a perfect opportunity to retire. Or perhaps he could take on a new challenge, like coaching men.
There’s one data point that makes me think Auriemma might ride off into the sunset with his graduating seniors. Though Stewart and Jefferson are definitely going to the WNBA, Morgan Tuck could stay in Storrs for another season, because she has a year of NCAA eligibility left due to a medical redshirt her sophomore year. Thus far, though, Auriemma seems to be playing it down the middle, not going out of his way to encourage her to stick around even though Tuck herself had originally said she wanted to stay. Is it possible that Auriemma wouldn’t want Tuck to feel cheated if he himself decides to leave?
I have no idea what Auriemma is thinking, but if he does leave UConn, then no one could blame him for going out on the highest of high notes, however much I’d enjoy seeing him continue to work his magic.
In the meantime, every sports fan should tune in to ESPN on Tuesday night. Now, sportswriters are complaining that UConn is too dominant. By this time next year, they’ll be sorry they ever found fault with the most explosive and beautiful display of women’s college basketball that we’ll likely ever see.