INDIANAPOLIS – They are the Celtics in pony tails, and the Yankees in pink. They are the Canadiens without a penalty box, the Steelers without shoulder pads. They are UCLA, with two X chromosomes.
Their coach is John Wooden in a coed world. Except now, he has one more national championship.
And now that Breanna Stewart has crunched her last opponent and cut down her last net, what to think about the Connecticut Dynasty?The score against Syracuse was ... well, does it really matter? There was not much drama, of course. Villanova and Kris Jenkins were a million miles away. The Huskies just played an entire NCAA tournament in which they trailed for 104 seconds in six games, and won by an average of -- egads -- 39.9 points.
“Kids play their whole lives from the time they’re 10 to the time they’re 22 trying to get to one Final Four, hoping they win one national championship,” Geno Auriemma was saying late Tuesday night. And his team just had put the fourth in a row was in the bag, after an 82-51 breeze past Syracuse.
But then, there’s the issue, isn’t it? The Huskies are so good, that seems to disturb some people, the theory being their dominance is a wet blanket on the game, and their stack of blowouts a buzzkill. Well, it’s true, the outside world doesn’t much care for games over in 10 minutes, but still. In a world beset by malfeasance and mediocrity, when so many things end up wrong or wanting, since when is unparalleled and unbroken excellence a sin?
“They’ve created an amount of excitement that the game has not seen in a long, long time, if ever,” Auriemma said of his veterans. “They’ve left an imprint on this game that’s going to last a really long time, and I think it’s a blueprint for kids coming after them, that if you want to know how to do it, they showed everybody how to do it.”
Rain on that parade? Why?Welcome, then, to Connecticut Appreciation 101. How best to understand the history that has just been made in Auriemma’s empire.
Tip 1. Consider how hard it is to have a true dynasty. The D-word gets tossed around freely now. A couple of championships, certainly three, and bingo. A dynasty.
No it’s not. UCLA with 10 titles in 12 years, the Yankees winning 19 World Series in 36 seasons, the Celtics winning 11 NBA Finals in 13 years. Those are dynasties.
UConn just won its 10th national championship this century. And this century isn’t that old. To win individual games by 35 points might seem easy, but to do it again and again and again is something else. Hard.
Tip 2. Realize the single most difficult thing to do in sport, by popular acclaim, is not to get to the top, but stay at the top.
There is every opportunity for ego to spoil the chemistry.
Every opportunity for complacency to dull the effort.
Every opportunity to take it all for granted.
And like the men always say at Duke and North Carolina and Kentucky, the target is always on their backs. You don’t think UConn has a target the size of Hartford?
None of it has mattered.
“Up to now we’ve been able to get the right kind of person who’s a great player, and who really believes in more than just, `what’s in this for me?”’ Auriemma said. “If you came to Connecticut because individually you wanted to be great and recognized, then you’d better make sure our team wins.
“But the tide is shifting under your feet. You can feel it . . . Up to now we’ve been able to keep it at bay because of the type of kids we get. I told my assistants, you keep bringing me these kind of kids, I can coach a long time. If I’ve got to coach a different kind of kid, who’s that guy who retired by riding a horse into the sunset... I ain’t coming back.”
Here’s the brand of star UConn has been attracting. Stewart said her freshman year she had one goal. A national championship? Nope. Four of them.
“I knew it was going to be a statement that wasn’t going to be forgotten, that’s for sure,” she said Tuesday night. “Especially when you see everybody’s eyes look up in the press conference. But I’m glad I said it. Why not set your goals high? I did, and now I’ve reached them.”
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Tip 3. Notice how ideal the location was Tuesday for the perfect coach with the perfect team to go passing Wooden’s 10 UCLA national championships. In Indiana, Wooden-land.
Auriemma won his 11th championship 30 miles from the village of Hall, where John Wooden was born ...
And 34 miles from Martinsville, where John Wooden went to high school ...
And 68 miles from Purdue, where John Wooden went to college ...
And 76 miles from Terre Haute, where John Wooden had his first head coaching job.
It has been a subject he has not seemed entirely comfortable discussing, whether it be because of Wooden’s aura, or that this might be apples and oranges with a men’s coach and a women’s coach, or that his focus is elsewhere, on his players’ quest.
“I’ve tried to keep it more in what are they thinking, what are they feeling, what’s going through their minds. I’m not really internalizing myself,” he said. “Maybe that will come later. I wish I could be in their heads to know what they’re thinking.”
That is why he barked at his Huskies during a timeout Tuesday, when they backed off and let Syracuse make a run, “You can’t stumble into the history books.”
And he was more interested in the dozens of former players who came back Tuesday to watch No. 11, rather than any Wooden ghost in air.
“What those 11 national championships mean to me is how many great players I’ve had the opportunity to coach and how many great people have come through our program,” he said to the audience in the post-game awards ceremony. “It doesn’t matter whose name I’m over, whose name I’m under, whose name I’m next to, as long as I have those names and those players in my memory, I’m good.”Tip 4. Study Connecticut’s numbers as you would supernatural phenomenon. Not just the four consecutive championships or the 75-game winning streak. Those are mighty enough, but others border on the other worldly.
Connecticut has allowed one opponent to shoot 50 percent ... in 443 games.
The Huskies are 122-1 their last 123 contests.
They are 84-7 in the NCAA tournament in this century and none of the wins have been by single digits. Average winning margin in the four tournaments: 33.3. Not even Lew Alcindor could say that his three years at UCLA, where he was so dominant they outlawed the dunk trying to slow him down.
In this past tournament, their opponents averaged 50.3 points for the game. Connecticut averaged 51.7 for the first half.
Tip 5. In this tournament, the Notre Dames and Baylors and Marylands and Tennessees and Stanfords went down like bowling pins. One could claim growing parity in the game.
And then you look at Connecticut. In the end, all that was left to stop the Huskies was Syracuse—hoping to be part Rocky, part Miracle on Ice.
The Orange were neither. The gap between No. 1 and everybody else looks like the Pacific Ocean. But this isn’t the first sport to have that happen. UConn hasn't had a play written about it -- Damn Huskies. At least not yet.
So they have ransacked the history book to a spectacular degree. But what happens now? Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson are the core, and the core will be gone, with fourpeat mission accomplished.
“The rest of the players coming back are in for a rude awakening,” Auriemma said. “It’ll be one of the more difficult adjustments we’ve had in the time that I’ve been there. That’s OK. I’m looking forward to it. There’s a lot of new stories to be written.”
More stock might be put on something Stewart said.
“I don’t think UConn ever has a rebuilding year. I don’t think we rebuild, we just reload.”
There are 11 trophies now to prove her point. And a relentless march through time that must be appreciated, no matter how lopsided many of the games.