Critics dug in mid-demolishment as the University of Connecticut women’s basketball machine was completing its 98-38 conquest of poor No. 5 seed Mississippi State in a Sweet 16 game last weekend.
Bad for the sport.
And what does Geno Auriemma put in his hair?
UConn is 119-1 (with every victory in double-digits) since a loss at Notre Dame in the 2013 regular-season finale. But somehow this dominance stretch is a problem while previous dynasties in other sports — John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins, the Yankees and Lakers, Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan — are still celebrated.
Great for the sport.
Some criticism is sexist. Former Notre Dame and Oklahoma State basketball player Doug Gottlieb went there this week on his CBS Sports radio show, praising UConn overall but noting that he liked women and liked basketball but didn’t like women’s basketball.
Some criticism is a simple failure to realize it’s not easy to get in a position to win a record fourth straight NCAA championship, which would make for 11 total.
All of it is ridiculous.
Entering a Final Four semifinal game against Oregon State on Sunday night, we should lift up UConn as the ultimate love ‘em or hate ‘em team in American sports over the last decade. Tom Brady and LeBron James should be so successful/despised.
Breanna Stewart is the ideal irrepressible force, a 6-4 senior forward who is tough inside and a sharpshooter beyond the 3-point line, at once the targeted nemesis and the beloved “Stewie.”
Auriemma is perfectly cast in the snarky genius role.
“I actually got asked today whether this was a litmus test for us, whether we needed this game to validate who we are this year because we play in a bad conference,” the Italian-born, 62-year-old head coach said in February after handing South Carolina its only regular-season loss with a 66-54 victory in Columbia. “It’s remarkable the questions I get asked. Some of these teams in these Power Five conferences should join our (American Athletic) conference. They probably need to play against us more often.”
Auriemma certainly can rub non-UConn people the wrong way. He is direct and thorough in his analysis of all things basketball.
WNBA guard Kalana Greene had a somewhat negative view of Auriemma while she was a Timberland High School player, but thought differently as a UConn starter.
“I think his confidence comes across as arrogant,” Greene said. “When I met him in recruiting I told him just that. I said, ‘Hey, I thought you were arrogant and cocky.’ He said, ‘Why did you think that?’ It’s because of the way he’s portrayed in the media. But he’s really just very sure of himself and as I have gotten to know him, I see him as one of the most humble people I have ever met. I wish people could see that.”
Women’s basketball has its share of problems.
Like college baseball, either not enough schools care about competing to commit financially or there aren’t enough good players to go around, which creates a small pool of realistic Final Four or College World Series contenders. Both sports are losing younger kids to lacrosse and other sports, or activities that don’t require strong parental help.
But at least college basketball players can practice indoors when it’s cold outside, and women’s basketball gets a lot more ESPN exposure than college baseball.
Which is why UConn in an increasingly shiny spotlight can be a good thing. Sure, the 60-point blast of Mississippi State was the largest spread ever in a women’s Sweet 16 game or later. But the Huskies force good programs to up the ante and mid-level programs to get serious while drawing attention from people who appreciate athletic excellence.
“If anything, we just learn from the UConn games that we play and try to get better,” South Carolina’s All-American forward A’ja Wilson said. “We have built off those games and learned from every mistake.”
It’s good for women’s basketball that three schools — Oregon State, Washington and Syracuse — are in their first Final Four.
It’s not a bad thing that for players at South Carolina, Notre Dame, Baylor and other quality programs the likelihood of an eventual collision with UConn is a daily thought.
“You really can’t get away from UConn,” Wilson said. “To be the best, you have to beat the best.”
That sounds more exciting than having to beat the Kansas City Royals.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff