Sports

We’re No. … 2?

How the UConn women’s basketball team went from an unbeatable dynasty to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Geno Auriemma standing with his arms outstretched at a basketball game.
Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Mar. 10.
Jessica Hill/AP

For the first time since 2006, the UConn women’s basketball team is not a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The disappointment of getting placed next to a No. 2 in the bracket is the latest in a string of them for the Huskies, who failed to reach the national championship game the last two seasons. Next year could be even worse: UConn loses its two best players to graduation and will bring in no marquee recruits.

Back in 2016, when an invincible UConn squad won its fourth straight national title, who could have predicted this fall from dominance? (Um … me.) The 2016 team, led by Breanna Stewart, featured the most successful graduating class in NCAA history. Stewart’s teams won every March Madness game they played by 10 points or more and surpassed two earlier eras of UConn dominance: one led by Diana Taurasi in the early 2000s and the other led by Maya Moore later that decade. As I wrote in 2016:

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.

That’s exactly what happened. If the ball had bounced differently in a couple of overtime games, UConn might be pursuing its seventh straight national title. Instead, it enters this year’s tournament with a title drought and an unfamiliar seed.

Before we dive into what’s going on with UConn, let’s take a moment to discuss its seeding. The Huskies lost only twice this season and finished the year ranked second in the major polls. But their No. 2 seed is reasonable given the way the selection committee evaluates teams. It places heavy value on a team’s wins against highly ranked opponents, and that approach favors schools from power conferences. UConn plays in the American Athletic Conference, where it is 120–0 all-time but does not play elite competition. Even though UConn beat Notre Dame convincingly this year on the road and had one fewer loss than the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame still received a top seed. And the decision makes sense because of Notre Dame’s stronger schedule. UConn, whose two losses were on the road to No. 1 seeds Baylor and Louisville, had few major wins. Given that the Huskies aren’t as good as they were the past two seasons, much less as great as during the Stewart-led run to four titles, the committee couldn’t look past their weak slate of opponents.

So what’s happened since 2016? If you don’t follow women’s college basketball closely, it might seem like UConn has been invincible forever. But that’s not true. The Huskies won three straight national titles from 2002 through 2004, but after Taurasi graduated, the school missed the Final Four the next three seasons. Then the great Moore arrived. During her four years in college, UConn went 150–4. After she graduated in 2011, it was only one year until Stewart started an even more dominant run.

Since Stewart graduated, there hasn’t been another star of her magnitude to fill the void. UConn has been led by Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, two seniors who are great players but not among the greatest of all time. In many respects, they’ve overachieved, going undefeated up until the Final Four in both 2017 and 2018 and not losing a non-overtime game until this year. Those are staggering accomplishments, but Stewart and her predecessors set the bar so high that only national championships seem to count as successes at UConn.

The failure to win one since Stewart left goes beyond the team’s current leaders. Last year, UConn had the top-shelf complementary talent it needed to win the title, but a specific wrong turn derailed them. Here’s where I will do the unthinkable and criticize UConn’s coach, Geno Auriemma, maybe the greatest coach in the history of not just basketball but any regularly televised American sport. Even Geno is human, and nothing is more human than a massively successful person believing in himself too much. Perhaps the methods that brought him success started to seem like infallible rules that would always yield winning results. In particular, consider how Geno gets his star players to fulfill their potential. When an elite recruit goes to a school other than UConn, she often scores prolifically as a freshman. At UConn, by contrast, elite recruits often have disappointing first years—and then blossom into superstars. Geno makes this happen by underutilizing the player in her first year and being highly critical of her game. It can make for an unpleasant, and unproductive, time, but the plan pays off when the player learns to accept coaching and let Geno mold her game. It’s a formula that has worked over and over—for Taurasi, Collier, Moriah Jefferson, Tina Charles, and even Stewart.

Last season, Geno applied the formula to a situation where it didn’t make sense. Unlike most of his players, who come to UConn from high school and must stay for four years before they can be drafted by the WNBA, Azurá Stevens transferred to UConn from Duke. She had two years of eligibility left and the option to go pro after her first year. Geno treated her like his other star first-year players. He didn’t give Stevens the minutes that her play warranted. Many observers, including this one, believed she was the best player on the team last year and could have been the best player in the country this year. But UConn lost to Notre Dame in the Final Four as Stevens sat on the bench for 17 minutes of game time, while seniors who were less talented (and a half-foot shorter) played the whole game or close to it. And then Stevens left for the pros. Perhaps she realized last year’s draft was weaker than this year’s. Or perhaps she left because she didn’t like her lack of playing time. Whether Geno benched her because he trusted his system too much or because he was too loyal to his seniors, it’s possible that his choice cost UConn the 2018 and 2019 national titles.

The team took another hit when Andra Espinoza-Hunter transferred to Mississippi State—a team that, unlike UConn, is a No. 1 seed this year. In a now-deleted video, Auriemma said this about Espinoza-Hunter’s departure: “She’s not there anymore, because I didn’t want her there anymore. It had nothing to do with her not liking it here, not fitting in, or playing time. I just didn’t want her here anymore. We have a simple rule at Connecticut. This is what I want you to do. If you don’t do it, I’m gonna remind you again … until a point I don’t remind you, and you’re not here anymore.” It’s possible her transfer was the best move for her and the program, but it also sounds possible his decision was influenced by hubris.

Without those two players, the margin of error for others has gotten smaller. It’s normal that UConn’s highly touted freshmen—top recruit Christyn Williams and No. 5 recruit Olivia Nelson-Ododa—have had unremarkable seasons. But what’s worrying is that former elite high schoolers haven’t matured as anticipated. Megan Walker, the top recruit in the class of 2017, has continued to fall short of expectations as a sophomore. Fellow sophomore Mikayla Coombs has barely played. Even Crystal Dangerfield, the No. 3 recruit from 2016, has developed into only a good player in her three years at UConn. Player development is the key to UConn’s greatness, and Geno has failed to get as much as usual out of this group.

Yet despite all of this, less than three weeks from now, UConn could be cutting down the nets in Tampa as the national champion. Even in its down years, the program remains a contender. They’re probably a top-five team, along with Baylor, Notre Dame, Louisville, and Mississippi State. But it’s going to be tough for the Huskies to win it all—I’d put their odds at no higher than 20 percent. (FiveThirtyEight sees things the same way.)

Next season will further test the Huskies. For the first time in five years, the school failed to land any star recruits. The top three players in the class all turned down the Huskies; UConn’s only incoming freshman is Aubrey Griffin, ranked No. 33 nationally. UConn will also lose Samuelson and Collier, its two best players. The worst-case scenario for UConn is that the struggles of Walker and Coombs signal the school can no longer develop its players to the same level, and that Geno never wins another title. The best-case scenario is that UConn wins the title this year and then its bevy of underperforming elite recruits finally makes the most of its minutes next season and starts another run. Then comes the heavily hyped recruiting classes of 2020 and 2021, with players like Paige Bueckers, Amari DeBerry, and especially Azzi Fudd. If Geno nabs one or all of those players and develops them, it could be back to dominance for UConn and its legendary coach.

Either of those scenarios is realistic, so I’ll split the difference and guess that UConn won’t win the title this year and will fail to reach its lofty standards next year while still being a dangerous tournament team that no one wants to face. Not long thereafter, players like Williams will reach their potential and more elite recruits will come through the door and UConn will return to the top of its game. Give it two or three years, and most fans will have forgotten that Geno Auriemma’s Huskies ever fell from their perch at all.