It was an old rivalry with a new twist. As UConn coach Geno Auriemma said with uncharacteristic emotion, “It wasn’t the same. I miss having her there.”
‘Her’ was legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. Her and Auriemma’s squads did battle many times during her tenure, with UConn edging out Tennessee 13-9 for the series lead between the two teams. During each of those 22 games, both teams were in the Top 15 in the AP Poll. It was a rivalry for the ages that finally concluded around 2007.
On Thursday night, for the first time in thirteen years, the Huskies and Volunteers met on the basketball court again, although this time, Summitt was not leading the ladies in orange. Having retired in 2012, the all-time leader in coaching wins died in 2016 at just age 63, having been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers. It was a devastatingly early end to the career of one of the greatest coaches to ever do it.
Tennessee, led by coach Kelli Harper, came out of the gates firing on Thursday, taking a lead into halftime on the Huskies’ home court. Auriemma would ultimately pull the right strings, and his team played with a renewed ferocity. Their dominant second half propelled the home squad to a 60-45 victory. The intensity of the game, especially for the first three quarters when the game was still in doubt, echoed the old intensity of what was quite possibly the greatest rivalry ever on a college basketball court.
And, even if it wasn’t the same, it was a big win for the Huskies, who answered some major questions with a statement win over their first ranked opponent since their 16-point home loss to Baylor.
All Eyes On Oregon
In other women’s basketball headlines, the games to watch this weekend once again reside in the Pac-12. After Stanford engaged in two top-10 duels last week, there will be another pair of premier match-ups to watch in the coming days. Fans of high quality basketball and exciting rivalries will want to tune in as #4 Oregon hosts #7 Oregon State on Friday, before the two squads switch locations and do it again on Sunday, with the Ducks visiting the Beavers. Oregon is 15-2 and has won eight of their past eleven games by at least thirty points, including an 87-55 beat-down of Stanford. The Cowboys started 15-0, but they’ve been tripped up in two of their past three games, losing at Arizona State and at home to Stanford by a combined 11 points. It should be a thrilling series out west, and one that will clear up some of the muddled confusion at the top of the rankings.
How this women’s basketball season will turn out is pretty much anybody’s guess? For the first time in a while, there’s not one dominant team, but rather a group of favorites who all seem like viable options to be the last team standing. Last week, the top-3 teams in the AP Poll all lost, leaving the top of the rankings in disarray. I’m sure I’ll be less than successful, but I’ll try to sift through the madness of the regular season so far and give you my top 10 NCAA women’s basketball teams, plus a couple teams I think are very good, but not Top-10 material.
#10 – DePaul
Probably not the most popular pick at #10 as DePaul is ranked just 14th in the AP Poll and 15th in the coaches poll, but I really like DePaul’s offense and I think they can stay with anyone when their shooting game is hot. They are near the top of the country in 3-pointers made and 3pt percentage, as well as fourth in the country in points per game. They may not be the most well rounded team, but they’ve got a bevy of lethal shooters that are more than capable of turning a game on its head.
#9 – Arizona State
Again, the Sun Devils aren’t really a Top 10 team by their whole resume, but wow they are playing like one right now. They pushed #7 UCLA to the brink on the road, and they followed that up with a three-game winning streak, taking down #6 Oregon and ending #8 Oregon State’s undefeated season in the process. They struggled early, but the Sun Devils are quickly proving themselves capable of playing with the best.
#8 – UCLA
The Bruins rank 6th in RPI, and they’re the only undefeated team in the country. The toughest part of their schedule is yet to come so their spot at #8 indicates a respect for their results so far with some wary optimism about what’s ahead. They’ve been dominant in Pac-12 play, with two wins by at least 24 points, and a 12-point win over #21 Arizona.
#7 – Oregon
The Ducks were #2 and knocking on the doorstep of #1 following UConn’s loss to Baylor, but the Ducks turned around and were upset by Arizona State, sending them crashing out of the top 5. They’re #6 in the AP Poll, and they land #7 here. They still have a deep tourney run in them, but they’ll have to win the games they’re supposed to.
#6 – UConn
In our last women’s basketball post, we discussed whether UConn was still a dynasty, and we came to the conclusion that they are, but that does not mean they’re the best team this year. They’ve been dominant at times, but they’ve also shown some holes, including being unable to pull away from a pesky Memphis squad in their most recent AAC game. The Huskies have never lost a game in the AAC, but they didn’t look convincing last night, just one game removed from a 16-point home loss to Baylor. UConn is an elite team, but they’re sitting at #6 until they show a more consistent string of dominance.
#5 – Oregon State
The Beavers almost made it to these power rankings unscathed, but they fell victim to the wave of upsets as Arizona State took them down. Before that however, Oregon State beat Arizona on the road, handled Colorado easily, and stormed by Utah to start Pac-12 play. Prior to conference games, the Cowboys had won 12 straight, all by double digits.
#4 – Louisville
The Cardinals boast an extremely impressive resume already, and they are cruising in the ACC, posting a 4-0 record while barely breaking a sweat. Outside of a close road loss to Ohio State, Louisville has quality road wins over #11 Kentucky and #6 Oregon. They’re currently on an 8-game winning streak, a run that includes five road victories.
#3 – Stanford
It was a close call between Stanford and Louisville, but the west coast squad got the bid for the third spot. The Cardinal have a signature blowout victory in a 27-point victory over a quality Tennessee team, and they have dominated the Pac-12 to start the year, going 4-0 with their closest contest being a 14 point victory. They also beat #10 Mississippi State and #16 Gonzaga this year, but the Cardinal will have to eventually start proving themselves on the road, as they’ve played just four games away from home, losing one of them.
#2 – South Carolina
The Gamecocks are #1 in the AP Poll and #2 in the Coach’s poll, tussling for the top spot with Baylor. I gave the nod to Baylor, demoting South Carolina to #2 in the initial Power Rankings. South Carolina is third in the country in scoring margin, and they have quite simply dominated throughout the year. They have a road victory versus Maryland on their resume, and they’ve scored 90 or more points in six games, including four straight. They’ve beaten several ranked opponents in Arkansas and Kentucky, and Baylor, but their 14-point home loss to Indiana was hard to ignore.
#1 – Baylor
Baylor just ended UConn’s 98-game home winning streak, giving the Bears the premier win they needed the nab the top spot in the power rankings. The Baylor’s men team is ranked #2 in the AP Poll, giving Baylor probably the top basketball program in the country right now as a whole. The women’s team has given up the second least amount of points, scored the most, and subsequently, leads the country in scoring margin, having scored 100+ points a whopping four times already. Although they lost to South Carolina head to head, the Bears have won their ensuing games by 38.7 points per game, including the UConn victory. It’s a toss-up, but a gut feeling says to give the top spot to the Bears. We’ll see if they keep it through the next edition of power rankings.
If there is one conversation that virtually every sports fan will have an opinion on, it is dynasties. If you love Alabama, or more recently, Clemson football, you love dynasties. If you are a fan of one of their SEC or ACC victims…probably not as much. So whether you’re rooting for your program’s dynasty to continue, or desperately waiting for your rival to cease their dominance, discussing dynasties is almost always topical and interesting.
This brings us to a series of questions…what is a dynasty? How should we measure one, and hat is the difference between dynasty and elite? And when is it acceptable to declare a dynasty dead?
To answer these questions, we’ll look at a modern-day college program who has unquestionably been a dynasty for a long time: The UConn Women’s Basketball program. Under the expert tutelage of Geno Auriemma, the Huskies have dominated, winning ten national titles since 2000. Only once in that span has one of Auriemma’s teams eclipsed five losses in a season; on the flip side, the Huskies have finished unbeaten five times. They have unquestionably been the dynasty of the modern era of college women’s basketball, but lately, their stranglehold on the top spot has begun to slip.
For the first time since 2005-2008, the Huskies have gone three successive years without claiming a national title; they do not have a player on their roster who has won a championship. Within their era of success, such a statistic is unprecedented. But, while they may not have claimed their usual spot atop the basketball world, they’ve still knocked on the door each year, losing in the Final Four the past three years. They’ve been among the last four teams standing for a stunning 12 straight years. But the lack of recent titles and Final Four success has people questioning if UConn’s dynasty is over. Just recently, their 98-game home winning streak came crashing to a halt when they scored just 6 fourth-quarter points in a 74-58 loss to defending national champion Baylor.
If you measure a dynasty by consistency in claiming titles, then you might be right in declaring the Huskies’ dynasty dead. But such a measurement is faulty and doesn’t encompass the true nature of a dynasty. A dynasty is winning titles but also maintaining a certain level of dominance. Teams can win a couple of titles and not be considered a dynasty – remember the San Francisco Giants winning titles in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Three years in five titles may be considered a dynasty, but in 2011, 2013, and 2015, the Giants were just 246-240 and didn’t make the playoffs. They never felt like a dynasty because they never maintained their success – it just felt like they got hot at the right time. That’s certainly not what UConn has does, and it’s why we shouldn’t make their title count the sole measure of their dynasty.
I believe the perfect measurement was described by Kurt Russell when he depicted USA hockey coach Herb Brooks in the movie “Miracle”. Any sports fan knows about the 1980 USA hockey team, which stunned the Soviet team that had won four consecutive Olympic Gold Medals in historically dominant fashion. In the movie, Brooks watches Soviet film with his team and says, “They know they’re going to win. And so does their opponent.”
This is the essence of a dynasty. It’s a level of intimidation, a sheer presence that has your opponent cowering before the first whistle. UConn still has that presence in the world of college basketball. Maybe the most elite teams believe they have a shot, but to this day, no one has shown the ability to consistently beat this team. Last year, UConn finally dropped to a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, but when they ran into #1 Louisville, the Huskies led the entire way and still advanced to the Final Four. Even on a so-called down year, the Huskies maintained their place among the best in the country.
UConn’s recent loss to Baylor threatened the veil of invincibility that has long surrounded their program. A double-digit home loss will do that, but the fact remains that until UConn starts losing when it truly matters, their dynasty prevails. It was extremely similar with a dynasty like the New England Patriots; they may not have won the Super Bowl each year, but they maintained a certain level of dominance, and nobody wanted to play them in January. But a 1st-round playoff loss at home was an announcement that the AFC has caught up, and they no longer fear New England. That message has not been sent to UConn. They continue to win, often by brutally large margins. They are 106-0 all time in AAC play, and before last year’s ‘lackluster’ 35-3 season, they had not lost a regular season game since November 14, 2014. One loss does not destroy a dynasty and neither does three straight semifinal losses. The Huskies are still here about about 95% of the time they take the court, they know they’re going to win…and so does their opponent. They may have a few challengers at the very top, but none of those teams have even come close to maintaining a similar level of continued success. Therein lies the difference between a dynasty and an elite program. Everyone loves to declare a dynasty dead, but now is not the Huskies’ time to go.