Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

UConn Hits the Reset Button to Chase NCAA Title No. 12

"The secret of joy in work is contained in one word - excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.” --Pearl Buck

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)

Even though, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team has created 107 consecutive hardwood masterpieces, the only number that matters is one. 

As in the next game, which is Saturday morning against 16th-seeded Albany at Gampel Pavilion at 11 a.m. on ESPN2. If they prevail, which is a good chance of that occurring considering the Huskies have had plenty of practice at winning, then one continues to be only important digit until there are no more games to be played.

Many believe that it’s a foregone conclusion that Connecticut will be the last team standing for the fifth consecutive year.

Therefore, several casual, lazy and ignorant observers are dismissive of the Huskies’ incomprehensible run of excellence. They believe there’s no reason to watch or follow the 2017 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. They are wrong. 

There will be drama and the Huskies could be challenged.

Granted if UConn brings its A-plus game, it will mostly likely end up cutting nets down again and enjoying another confetti shower -- an annual rite of spring.

It’s annoying that there’s not more of an appreciation of UConn’s greatness and brilliance. Watching the Huskies perform is like listening to Mozart in his prime or witnessing Michaelangelo painting. 

People want to say there’s no competition in the women’s game. Yet, UConn started this season with more questions than a standardized test after losing its terrific triumvirate who turned out to be the top three picks in last spring’s WNBA Draft in Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck.

Then the Huskies were ranked third in the preseason polls and struggled to edge Florida State, 78-76, on the road in their season opener. 

This was definitely the season that UConn would get lumped up during a brutal and savage non-conference slate that featured games against championship contenders Baylor, South Carolina, Notre Dame, Texas and Maryland. 

Instead, all UConn did was make loquacious head coach Geno Auriemma speechless while elevating its elegant game to an ethereal pantheon only it knows exists. 

The Huskies are past the gold standard for women’s basketball. They have raised the bar to unimaginable and unreachable heights. Some people don’t appreciate how difficult it is to win 107 consecutive games especially when you are expected to do and receive everybody’s top effort. 

Imagine trying to do the same thing at a high level 10 consecutive times let alone 107. Excellence is an aimed for standard of performance. Connecticut has exceeded that and is working on its ninth perfect season in program history, which is mind-boggling and crazy. 

Of course, Vince Lombardi passed away before he had a chance to witness the UConn women. Otherwise, he would have revised this strong statement, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” 

The Huskies have made perfection look easy and routine. They have caught excellence and can only be measured by themselves as this group eclipsed the previous college basketball record of 90 consecutive victories set from 2011-14 by the Huskies.

Watching the Huskies is a treat. They are precise on offense and disciplined to compete on every defensive possession. In addition to its tremendous talent, UConn plays with so much grit, tenacity, verve, poise and resiliency that you take for granted that these are 18-22 year olds playing with this type of molten ferocity and laser-like focus. 

The Huskies play every game like the sport will disappear tomorrow. There’s a casual cruelty in the way UConn devours opponents.

I enjoy that Auriemma doesn’t apologize for UConn’s dominance. The Huskies’ supremacy has helped the sport. There is amazing talent all over the country and it’s not just centered in Storrs. They have forced other programs to improve and invest resources into competing at a high level. That has to be a great thing. 

Last season’s tournament featured a pair of No. 1 seeds being upset in the regional semifinals and three new Final Four participants. Maybe that will become the norm or perhaps it was a just a one-year fluke. I believe more and more teams will find their way to the ultimate weekend of the season going forward.

I happened to witness two of UConn’s losses to Skylar Diggins-led Notre Dame in person at the XL Center in 2013.

 One game wasn’t close as the Fighting Irish won the final regular season title of the old Big East Conference before realignment. The other was a classic affair that ended with the Irish winning at the buzzer in a memorable Big East title game.

Remember if Louisville doesn’t upset an undefeated Baylor squad going for consecutive national titles in 2013, maybe UConn is chasing its fourth straight national title instead of a fifth. That Baylor squad led by Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims was the overwhelming favorite to win the NCAA title until it ran into the Cardinals in the Sweet 16.

The following year was the much-anticipated battle of the unbeatens for the title in Nashville between UConn and Notre Dame, which also helped the sport.

Can Connecticut lose a game during the tournament? Of course it can. It’s March and upsets happen. There’s been some notable takedowns on the women’s side like 16th seeded Harvard beating top-seeded Stanford in the first round and Ball State winning over Tennessee in the second round. It’s sports and anything is possible. 

All it takes is foul trouble to its post players, an insanely strong offensive game from a player like UCLA’s Jordin Canada, Maryland’s Brionna Jones or Duke’s Lexie Brown, as well as some help from UConn like a rare off-night.

 The Huskies aren’t super deep, but possess a swagger of invincibility, an underdog mentality in which they believe they have to fight for every basket, and the best coach in the sport. 

Over its last 10 games, Napheesa Collier is averaging 22.2 points and 10.2 rebounds. Katie Lou Samuelson has averaged 20 points per outing while Gabby Williams has contributed 14.6 points and 8.8 rebounds over the same span. 

Of course it helped that she dropped 40 during an insane performance during UConn’s last game, a 100-44 win over South Florida in the American Athletic Conference championship game. 

Connecticut owns the sport's all-time winningest record in NCAA Tournament play, checking in at 109-17 (.865). The team is making its 29th consecutive appearance in the event and has advanced to the Sweet 16 in each of the last 23 seasons.

The team will enter the tournament as a No. 1 seed for the 20th time in program history and the 11th season in-a-row. The Huskies are 91-9 all-time as a No. 1 seed, including wins in 73 of its last 78 games. Ten of UConn's 11 national championships have come when the squad began play as a No. 1 seed. 

So while the Huskies enter the NCAA Tournament having won 107 straight games, including 24 consecutive NCAA tournament triumphs, they understand that the only digit that matters is one. As in one win. They keep winning one game four times, UConn will advance to its record 10th straight Final Four, which will give it a chance win its 12th national title.

Don’t dismiss the greatness of UConn. There’s nothing wrong with UConn’s dominance. The Huskies win because they expect to win. 

So sit back and appreciate, cherish and embrace the excellence of UConn because it’s special.  


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