Tag Archives: UConn basketball

UConn’s Improbable March to the Final Four

While both the University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball teams reached the Final Four, the word “improbable” in the title should make it clear which one I’m referring to. After sitting out the postseason last year because of an academics-related ban, the men’s squad finished third in the American Athletic Conference this season, three games behind the co-leaders. They were placed in the NCAA Tournament’s East Region as the 7 seed and needed a late comeback and overtime to beat St. Joe’s in Round One.

Two days later they upset Villanova to reach the Sweet 16 in Madison Square Garden. Once there, the Huskies fed off a pro-UConn crowd—and a defense now ranked 10th in the country according to KenPom.com—to beat Iowa State and Michigan State to advance to the Final Four. They will face top overall seed Florida on Saturday in Dallas.

Continue reading UConn’s Improbable March to the Final Four

College Basketball Writing Update

For those who don’t follow me on the Twitters or regularly check the Freelance page on the site, I wanted to update you on some of my writing. I continue to profile a Rising Star for CBS Local each week. My last two featured players are Iona’s A.J. English and Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff.

I wrote about the most entertaining broadcast duo in college basketball, ESPN’s Dave Pasch and Bill Walton, for the Arizona Daily Star. If you can’t get your hands on today’s Star, it is available online. My phone conversation with Walton is not something I will soon forget.

Lastly, about a month ago I wrote about Bria Hartley, a starting guard for Connecticut’s undefeated women’s team, for Newsday. Her work ethic and freakish endurance have made her a star.

I’m in the process of writing stories for several other publications and will keep you all updated. Thanks for reading!

Butler Loses to UConn in National Championship

“Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

Oh, right, I don’t have to steal a lede because the mid-major school with the enrollment of 3,600 and basketball budget that just this season cracked the top 100 (but still ranks just 98) did not win the national championship. Then again, perhaps the fact that it found itself in the game for the second straight year warrants its inclusion. Butler did a lot of things more difficult than beating Connecticut in the past two seasons, but Butler did not beat Connecticut so here we are.

If you wanted a thorough breakdown of the game itself, you came to the wrong place. Then again, where would you go for such a thing? I’d say the box score does the trick. Butler could not put the ball in the basket—not from close (3-for-31), from far (9-of-33 on threes), or even that well when there was literally no defense (8-of-14 from the free throw line).

Butler star Shelvin Mack had scored 24 in the semifinal game just two days before, his third time scoring at least that many in this Tournament, but he missed two open layups in the first few possessions that proved to be foretelling. The Bulldogs led 25-19 after hitting a three to open the half, but then shot an unfathomably bad 1-of-23 over a 13 minute span, scoring just three points as UConn built a 13-point lead.

I’d say this best sums up Butler’s offensive woes: Two days later, I can recall every two-point basket (who made it, where they were on the floor) and could probably reconstruct most of the threes, too, if I really thought about it.

It’s a testament to how good the Bulldogs are at other phases of the game that at the under-12 media timeout in the second half they were only down five. But at the end Butler was down 11, 53-41, in the lowest scoring national championship game since 1949.

So Butler does not get to put a national title banner in Hinkle Fieldhouse but it does get to hang another Final Four banner, and that is utterly remarkable. Butler trailed by six to UTEP in its opening round game of last year’s NCAA Tournament, then played tight games with Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State before losing to Duke. This year, as an 8-seed, the Bulldogs beat Old Dominion at the buzzer, knocked off Pitt by one in a game analysts are still trying to understand, and, later, topped Florida in overtime.

Much of America was hoping this year’s title game would be a lot like the 2010 version except, you know, Butler would win. The stars certainly seemed aligned as UConn was a weaker foe than Duke. Of course the opponent becomes inconsequential when you can’t make a basket.

But I urge you, regardless of your level of college basketball fandom, to remember Butler not for its inability to play well in one particular game, but its ability to play extremely well in so many other games these past two years. It is extraordinarily difficult to navigate through an NCAA Tournament, as Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Kansas, and so many other really good teams found out this year and every year. Butler managed to do it twice, coming up just one win short each time.

You could look at Monday night as a missed opportunity, as a second chance that is rarely given in sports, especially sports that crown their champion through a single elimination, month-long tournament. And, in many ways, it was that. But Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs capitalized on so many other opportunities that will have far more lasting effects than a win would have.

I hope you enjoyed the ride.

NCAA Tournament 2011: Final Four Preview

(Credit: NCAA)

The 2011 Final Four in Houston will be a memorable one. We know this before the games are even played because of the teams involved: Kentucky, which will play Connecticut, and Butler, which faces Virginia Commonwealth. In a year when you should be proud of yourself for correctly predicting one Final Four team and should get your own college hoops radio show if you got two, let’s take a look at some of the facts, figures, and other tidbits relating to the 2011 Final Four.

  • As far as seeds, this is the highest cumulative number in a Final Four (11 + 8 + 4 + 3 = 26), breaking the previous high of 22 in 2000.
  • Two of the teams were unranked in the preseason polls: UConn and VCU. Kentucky, ranked 10/11 in the preseason, remained in the polls all season while Butler (preseason 17/18) fell out after two weeks and never returned. UConn entered the polls in Week 4 and never left. According to TheresAStatForThat.blogspot.com, this is only the fifth time since 1989 (when the polls expanded to 25 teams) that a Final Four matchup features teams unranked at any point during the season (and, as noted, in this case neither was ranked for all but two weeks of the season).
  • This is the first time there is no 1 or 2 seed in the Final Four. Three 1 or 2 seeds played in regional finals (Kansas, North Carolina, and Florida), but all lost to lower seeds.
  • This is the first time since the Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that two teams outside of the BCS conferences are in the Final Four (and first time since 1979, when Indiana State and Penn both made it).
  • Butler coach Brad Stevens is 34. VCU coach Shaka Smart is 33. Those two ages combined do not reach 68, the age of UConn coach Jim Calhoun. It could be the lowest combined age of coaches in a Final Four matchup, but I’m not certain of that.
  • Two of the teams—UConn and VCU—were not in the Tournament last year. The two that were, however, did quite well. Kentucky lost in the Elite 8 and Butler, as I’m sure you remember, was the national runner-up.
  • There are probably not a ton of future NBA players in this year’s group, especially on the right side of the bracket, which is unusual. According to The Wall Street Journal, 94 of the 96 teams that reached the Final Four between 1985 and 2008 had at least one player who eventually appeared in an NBA game. In fact, 91 percent of the teams over that span had at least two such players and the majority of teams had at least four. Kentucky and UConn are both young teams but appear to fit the mold, while Butler and VCU certainly do not. Both teams have just two players each on ESPN’s draft tracker, and all four of those players are listed as “second round to undrafted.” Neither NBADraft.net nor DraftExpress.com have any Butler or VCU players getting selected in their 2011 mock drafts.
  • Only VCU did not win its conference tournament, as the Rams lost in the CAA finals, but given their extra NCAA Tourney game, they are on a five-game win streak. UConn had its historic run in the Big East tournament, winning five games in five days, so the Huskies enter Houston on a nine-game win streak. Kentucky’s streak is at 10, while Butler’s is at an impressive 13.

Kentucky Wildcats

  • John Calipari is taking his third team to the Final Four (UMass and Memphis were the others), joining Rick Pitino (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) as the only coach ever to do that. Calipari’s previous two appearances were eventually vacated.
  • Kentucky has already gone one step further than it did last season despite losing five players (four freshmen and a junior) in last year’s NBA Draft.
  • Young teams have more room for improvement, and Kentucky has certainly improved as the season has progressed. Evidence of this is UK’s win over North Carolina in the regional final, as the Cats had lost to UNC earlier in the season. Kentucky will get a chance to prove this again on Saturday—they also lost to UConn, 84-67, back in November.
  • Darius Miller was a starter last season and DeAndre Liggins played 15 minutes a game, but the other four players in Kentucky’s rotation have little big-game experience. Three are freshmen and the other is Josh Harrellson, a senior who averaged just four minutes per game last season and played a total of six in last year’s Tourney.
  • Speaking of Harrellson, where did this guy come from? He has upped his season averages in all major categories, tallying 14.7 points and 9 rebounds a game in the Tournament. Most impressive was his ability to guard Ohio State All-America center Jared Sullinger one-on-one, which allowed the rest of the Kentucky defenders to stay home on OSU’s deadly three-point shooters. I realize last year’s squad was loaded with talent—including two frontcourt players that were lottery picks—but I find it hard to believe that Harrellson couldn’t have contributed. Then again, I have not coached three different schools to the Final Four.

Connecticut Huskies

  • This is UConn’s fourth appearance in the Final Four (all under Jim Calhoun) and all four times the Huskies have emerged from the West Region.
  • UConn is now 12-0 in tournament games this season, having won three to claim the Maui Invitational title, five to win the Big East tournament, and four so far in the Big Dance.
  • UConn has not lost an out of conference game this season (15-0).
  • Of the names that have surfaced over the course of the season for Player of the Year—Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Jared Sullginer, Nolan Smith—only Walker is still playing. (That being said, Jimmer is still going to win the award.)
  • Walker is the unquestioned leader of this very young UConn squad. According to KenPom.com’s experience rating, which takes into account minutes played, the Huskies rank 332 out of 345 teams, second lowest among BCS schools.
  • I questioned whether UConn’s season had peaked in Madison Square Garden for the conference tournament and if the Huskies had anything in the tank for the Big Dance. Boy was that silly.

Butler Bulldogs

  • When Gordon Hayward declared for the NBA Draft, the national sentiment was, “That’s too bad, this team could’ve made a serious run next year, too.” Instead, following somewhat of a similar script to last year—ranked in preseason, written off in regular season, improbable run to Final Four—the Bulldogs have wowed the nation again.
  • It’s been said a lot already, including multiple times by my roommate Ryan, who picked Butler to reach Houston, but here it is again: This year’s Butler is…Butler!
  • Brad Stevens is the youngest coach to reach two Final Fours. His calm sideline demeanor has been a big reason why. In Underdawgs, a book by Indianapolis Star columnist David Woods about Butler’s memorable run last season, I learned that Stevens often settles his team in late-game huddles by telling them, “We’re going to win this game.” Consecutive Final Fours seem wildly improbable to outsiders, but to those within the Butler program it was expected. To expect and to achieve are two very different things, but it’s hard to do the latter without believing you can.
  • Butler has the most big game experience of any of the Final Four teams and it’s not even close.
  • Here is my thoroughly detailed, heavily researched analysis of Butler’s offense: Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard can get you 20 points each, and the others chip in here and there and somehow at the end of the game they have more points than the other team.

Virginia Commonwealth Rams

  • VCU is the first team to win five games to reach the Final Four. From the First Four to the Final Four—truly remarkable.
  • As an 11 seed, VCU has tied the mark for the highest seed to reach the Final Four. LSU in 1986 and George Mason (more on them later) in 2006 are the others.
  • VCU has been the most dominant team in the Tournament. I repeat: VCU has been the most dominant team in the Tournament. The Rams have won their five Tourney games by margins of 13, 18, 18, 1 (overtime), and 10, an average margin of 15. They’ve been putting teams away early, too, holding a double-digit halftime lead in three of those games. These would be impressive performances by a 1 seed, and is absolutely mind-blowing for an 11 seed.
  • I don’t think this is as big a deal as others are making it out to be, but VCU has defeated teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12 en route to the Final Four. It will now face a team from the Horizon with a chance to play an SEC school in the finals.
  • Shaka Smart, in just his second season as a head coach after serving as an assistant at Florida, Clemson, and Akron, seems to be a great tournament coach. You know what he’s done this season, but last year VCU won the College Basketball Invitational (CBI).
  • Wait, VCU was in the CBI last year? Yes, and it’s yet another fact that underscores how improbable this run really is. People made a big deal of UNC’s turnaround—the Heels were one game away from the Final Four after not qualifying for the Tourney last year—but they went to the finals of the NIT. What Smart has done in year two is incredible.
  • This explains why most of the Rams did not bother to watch the Selection Show.
  • The obvious comparison is to George Mason, a fellow Colonial team that got a questionable at-large bid and marched to the Final Four as an 11 seed. A key difference, if I recall correctly, is that Mason was viewed as a dangerous team entering the Dance. The invitation still came as a surprise after the early exit from the CAA tournament, but many felt George Mason had a team capable of pulling off an upset or two. The same can’t be said of VCU, which was viewed as undeserving and not all that good.
  • I was not in favor of expanding the field and VCU’s run does not change my opinion. However, the Rams’ Tournament run has been unbelievably exciting and had the field not expanded, they almost certainly would not have received a bid, so it’s not all bad.
  • There is a very fine line between making the Final Four and getting bounced earlier in the Tournament. Kentucky needed a basket with two seconds left to beat Princeton by two in its opening game. It got another basket in the final seconds to beat Ohio State in the Sweet 16. UConn led by just one with less than two minutes left against San Diego State and survived two three-point attempts in the closing seconds that would have given Arizona a win in the regional final. Butler has been on a wild ride, beating Old Dominion at the buzzer, Pittsburgh by one, and Florida by three in overtime. VCU, of course, was one of the last teams invited to the Tournament.

Related Articles:

UConn’s path to Final Four
Kentucky’s path to Final Four
Butler’s path to Final Four

Duke vs Arizona, UConn vs San Diego St: Sweet 16 West Region Preview

3/25 Update, Postgame Reaction:

Connecticut 74, San Diego State 67
I’ll quickly review some questionable strategy before getting to the controversy. The UConn Huskies, and their star, Kemba Walker, are great in transition. San Diego State, despite what you may have heard from last night’s TV announcers, prefers to play a half court game. It has athletic, versatile big men that can, at times, electrify on the break, but that is certainly not the Aztecs’ strength.

So it was baffling why Steve Fisher’s squad tried to run with the Huskies in the first half last night. It led to a lot of careless turnovers and a 36-37 halftime deficit. A coach once told me it could be a pride thing—players wanting to show they can run with the opponent—so maybe that was a factor.

Equally questionable was UConn’s decision to slow the tempo for large stretches of the second half. That played right into the hands of San Diego State, which was able to tie the game before the second media timeout. When reserve Jamaal Franklin stole the inbounds pass and found Billy White inside to give the Aztecs a 53-49 lead, Jim Calhoun called timeout.

Commence controversy.

The basket came on the right side of the court and the San Diego State players had retreated back on defense, so most of them had to cross half court to return to their bench. Likewise, the UConn players had to cross the Aztecs’ path to return to their bench on the other side of the court.

This happens all the time in college basketball: one team (often including its bench players) celebrates while the other team dejectedly returns to its bench. This was the case at the 9:20 mark of this game, but what made it unique is that when Franklin and Walker bumped shoulders, Walker fell to the floor as if he had been tackled by a linebacker. We see this type of acting all the time when players are trying to draw a charge, but that is during actual game action.

My initial disgust was directed towards Walker, but he is certainly free to attempt a stunt like this. The blame lies with the officials who decided a technical foul should be assessed to Franklin. Some will point out that Walker didn’t even see Franklin coming, but slow-motion replays showed that was because Walker was too busy jawing with another San Diego State player.

Things did not go well for the Aztecs after this incident, as they found themselves on the wrong side of an 11-1 run to go down 60-54. Even then they had six minutes to respond, so saying the technical foul was a complete game-changer is a bit unfair. But it was certainly an unfortunate call, yet another in a March that seems to be dominated by them.

Arizona 93, Duke 77
I can’t say I saw the Duke-Arizona result coming. The fact that the Wildcats won was not a shocker—Michigan doesn’t have the talent of Arizona yet came within a basket of eliminating the Blue Devils, and exposed some of their deficiencies in the process.

Duke doesn’t quite have the supporting cast to withstand a poor performance from one of its stars—Nolan Smith shot 3-for-14—especially when it comes on the same night the opposition scored at will. Derrick Williams scored 25 of his 32 points in the first half to keep ’Zona within striking distance. In the second half, the rest of the Wildcats came alive, as Arizona went on a 19-2 run to seize control and run away with the victory.

Original Post:
On Thursday night, the Sweet 16 games get underway in the West region and Southeast region. In the West region, played in Anaheim, California, the Connecticut Huskies play the San Diego State Aztecs (7:15 EST, CBS) while the Duke Blue Devils take on the Arizona Wildcats (9:45, CBS). The winners meet for the right to go to the Final Four in Houston.

Below is a preview of the four teams (with the seed noted), outlining how each school advanced through the bracket as well as their strengths and weaknesses. There are also anecdotes from my trip to Las Vegas last weekend for the first two rounds of the Tournament.

No. 1 Duke
How they got here: By benefitting from the surprise return of Kyrie Irving, who had been sitting since Dec. 4 with a foot injury. The star freshman point guard led Duke with 14 points in a 42-point demolishing of Hampton, then scored 11, including Duke’s final field goal, to help the Blue Devils survive a pesky Michigan team 73-71.

Why you should have seen it coming: Is a Sweet 16 appearance ever surprising for Duke? Public opinion seemed to be split over whether the Blue Devils would face an athletic Tennessee team that had knocked off another No. 1 seed, Pitt, earlier in the season, or the Wolverines, whose changing defenses and complex offense can be difficult for even the more talented opponents to solve. It was the latter, and while Michigan gave the Dukies all they could handle, Coach K has a veteran team that isn’t easily rattled. And if you knew that not only would Irving return, but that he’d somehow look pretty darn good, then you probably picked Duke to reach Houston.

Why they may not go much further: The victory over Michigan wasn’t exactly convincing, as the baby Wolverines had a great look in the lane that would have sent the game to overtime. Leading by 15 with less than 11 minutes remaining, Duke couldn’t put Michigan away, struggling against the 1-3-1 zone.

The games only get tougher from here, as Duke leaves the friendly confines of North Carolina and heads west to face Derrick Williams and Arizona before a potential matchup with Kemba Walker and red-hot UConn or underrated San Diego State (remember, in California). Duke has already attempted 39 three-pointers in this Tourney, and another poor shooting performance like the one against Michigan (5-for-20 from deep) could lead to the end for the Blue Devils.

Vegas anecdote: A co-worker of mine went to Hampton, so I was prepared to take the 20+ points I was sure to get and bet against Duke in Round One. Standing in line, a fellow bettor told me he saw Hampton’s conference championship game and “they looked horrible.” Horrible enough to lose by 25? “Absolutely,” he said. That, coupled with my co-worker saying it was “unfair” that her alma mater had to play a basketball powerhouse like Duke, led me to stay away from the game, which proved to be a wise decision.

No. 5 Arizona
How they got here: On the broad shoulders of sophomore forward Derrick Williams, who made game-winning plays in each of Arizona’s first two contests. In a battle with 12 seed Memphis, Wesley Witherspoon grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed free throw and attempted a layup that would have sent the game to overtime, but Williams came out of nowhere to swat away the shot and preserve the victory.

Two days later, in what was a wild and controversial finish against 4 seed Texas, Williams drove to the hoop and completed an improbable and-one basket, making the foul shot to give the Wildcats a one-point lead with less than 10 seconds remaining. On Texas’ ensuing possession, Williams soared high to challenge the shot attempt at the buzzer to seal the victory.

Why you should have seen it coming: You’ve heard it before: Big players make big plays in big games. That’s exactly what Williams did in the opening weekend and is why he’s considered to be a top pick in the NBA draft. When a team has a superstar, you always have to assume he can carry the team for a couple of rounds.

Why they may not go much further: Arizona earned its spot in the Sweet 16, but it was certainly aided by a late-game meltdown by Texas. The Wildcats can’t expect Duke to do the same. The Blue Devils don’t have one player who can match Williams in the post, but they have enough big bodies to perhaps slow him down, and that could spell trouble for ’Zona.

Vegas anecdote: Arizona always has a lot of fans in Vegas, as many as any other school, and they were loud and proud when the Wildcats overcame a sluggish start to take the lead against Memphis. While Arizona held on for the win, it did not cover, leading to the always interesting bittersweet fan reaction: happy their team is advancing, but upset they can’t cash their tickets. Ah, the joys of sports betting.

No. 2 San Diego State
How they got here: By getting the March Madness monkey off their back, beating Northern Colorado for its first ever NCAA Tournament victory, and following it up with a double-overtime win over 7 seed Temple. The Aztecs, as they have all season, excelled on the defensive end, limiting the Bears to 33 percent shooting and Temple to 38 percent. They outrebounded the two opponents by a total of 21.

Why you should have seen it coming: The Mountain West Conference was strong this year, so the Aztecs’ 14-2 league record (with both losses coming against BYU) and conference tournament championship was impressive. Oh, and San Diego St. went undefeated out of conference, including a victory at Gonzaga. They have a potential NBA lottery pick in sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, who leads an extremely athletic frontcourt. The Aztecs have three senior starters, including clutch-shooting point guard D.J. Gay.

Why they may not go much further: The Aztecs sometimes struggle offensively, at least when compared to other teams vying for a spot in Houston. They scored just 18 points in the second half against Temple. The starting backcourt of Gay and Chase Tapley, along with reserve James Rahon, will have to provide enough perimeter scoring to at least come close to matching what UConn and potentially Duke can do offensively.

Vegas anecdote: San Diego St. provided my most memorable Tourney game of the weekend. While my friends and I wanted the Aztecs to win—for betting purposes and as fans of the team—we also wanted them to cover the 5.5-point spread, something that didn’t seem likely as the game went into the first and then second overtime. But Leonard’s two free throws put San Diego St. up five, and his steal and breakaway dunk with 20 seconds left gave the Aztecs the magical seven-point lead. This led to rowdy rejoicing—among friends and strangers alike—in the aisle of the Hilton theater.

No. 3 Connecticut
How they got here: By showing absolutely no hangover effects from a five-wins-in-five-days Big East tournament run. UConn opened on Thursday, just five days after their improbable march in Madison Square Garden, and walloped Bucknell, taking a 17-point halftime lead en route to an 81-52 victory. They led by just three against fellow Big East member Cincinnati with less than five minutes left, but pulled away for a 69-58 win. Kemba Walker picked up right where he left off in New York. Playing all but six minutes so far, Walker has led his team in scoring in both Tourney games, shot 20-for-20 from the free throw line, and posted 17 assists against just four turnovers.

Rise and fire. Kemba (probably) drains a jumper. (Credit: Kevin Scheller/The Daily Campus)

Why you should have seen it coming: You’re familiar with this Kemba guy, right? OK, I thought so, but if you’ve been watching UConn lately you know that Walker’s young supporting cast has been playing well also. With all the big wins the Huskies scored this season—five victories over teams given 4 seeds or better—an appearance in the Sweet 16 is no surprise.

Why they may not go much further: This team has to run out of gas at some point…maybe. Even if fatigue doesn’t set in, inexperience might. UConn starts three freshmen and a sophomore, and has two other underclassmen play prominent roles off the bench. No one is playing better than Connecticut right now, but I still think San Diego State is a better team, as is Duke, should the regional finals be a rematch of the 1999 title game.

Vegas anecdote: Unfortunately for me, the UConn-Cincinnati game was the last game on Saturday and I didn’t have much rooting interest since I had chosen Missouri in my bracket. But that’s what Vegas is for, so I bet on UConn for the second half and sweated it out as they covered the line.

UConn Huskies Set NCAA Record 89 Wins

NEW YORK—The Connecticut women’s basketball team had done it. The Huskies won their 88th consecutive game, this one against Ohio State, to tie the UCLA men for the all-time college basketball record. And that meant Geno Auriemma could speak about the streak.

About 12 minutes into his postgame press conference, he looked out to the room of reporters (myself included) and said:

“I just know that there wouldn’t be this many people in the room if we were chasing a women’s record. The reason there’s everybody in this room, the reason everybody’s having a heart attack the last four or five days, is a bunch of women are threatening to break a men’s record. And everybody is all up in arms about it. All the women are happy as hell and they can’t wait to come in here and ask questions. All the guys that love women’s basketball are all excited. And all the miserable bastards that follow men’s basketball and don’t want us to break the record are all here because they’re pissed. That’s just the way it is. If we were breaking a women’s record, everybody would go, ‘Aren’t those girls nice? Let’s give them two paragraphs in USA Today, give them one line on the bottom of ESPN, and then let’s send them back where they belong: in the kitchen.’ But because we’re breaking a men’s record, we’ve got a lot of people paying attention.”

This was after Auriemma had already answered the question that was asked, just to be clear that this statement was unprovoked. Auriemma has always spoken his mind. Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden it seemed as if he had some pent up frustrations he could finally let out. I just don’t think he is correct.

Say the Tennessee women had won 89 games in a row 10 years ago. Would people care any less about UConn’s current streak? I certainly don’t think so. Auriemma thinks otherwise.

Perhaps he was just frustrated, but he’s had a lot of time to think about the record, which UConn set last night against Florida State. I think he believes what he said. The sad thing is, the truth may be worse for women’s hoops—the “haters” don’t even care. Apathy is worse than anger, because if people are angry at least they are paying attention.

Neither Auriemma nor I conducted a national survey on the subject. Nobody knows exactly how many people are following UConn’s run. I do have friends and relatives that have no interest in what Connecuticut is doing and that is perfectly acceptable. I’m told Jimmie Johnson is doing amazing things in NASCAR, but I don’t pay attention.

I can say that I know none of the “miserable bastards” Auriemma mentioned. There are probably some that exist, but I can’t imagine too many people watching the Huskies solely to root against them because they want to protect a record set by men.

I don’t think it will matter if, somewhere down the line, a men’s team threatens to break UConn’s record. Or if another women’s dynasty comes along and makes a run at 90+ consecutive wins. It will likely get more media coverage if it’s a men’s team, but that’s because men’s basketball is a more popular game.

Sorry, Coach, but not everybody is having a heart attack. Not everybody is up in arms. Women’s basketball doesn’t provoke that kind of nationwide passion yet. It was wishful thinking on Auriemma’s part. As a fan, I share that hope.

UConn Women’s Basketball Going for 88th Straight

The University of Connecticut women’s basketball program is one win away from tying UCLA’s record of 88 consecutive victories. The No. 1 Huskies play No. 10 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden on Sunday as part of the Maggie Dixon Classic, a doubleheader that also features Rutgers vs. No. 7 Texas A&M.

It’s fun to compare the two streaks, but that’s not what I’m going to do. Both are beyond absurd and overwhelmingly impressive in their own right. I’m just going to focus on UConn, which last lost to Stanford in the 2008 NCAA Tournament final, 82-73. It was one of only two losses for the Huskies that season.

“First of all, winning one game is hard,” said Josh Pastner, the men’s basketball coach at Memphis, during a conference call before last week’s Jimmy V Classic. “The streak that they’ve put together is ridiculous. And I don’t care if it’s men’s, women’s, it doesn’t matter. To win at that level, when you’re getting everybody’s best shot every single time you step on the floor, is a remarkable thing. Whenever they do get taken out, that’s possibly a streak that might never be matched again in men’s or women’s.”

Led by head coach Geno Auriemma, now in his 26th season, UConn’s achievements are staggering. In the 2008-09 season, UConn went 39-0. They repeated that feat last season. Add in their perfect 9-0 record this season and you get 87 straight wins. It’s better to simply present the raw numbers than to try to find words that describe the achievement.

If a team is winning that many games, it’s pretty clear it is dominant. That is certainly reflected in the scores of UConn’s games during the streak. In the 2008-09 season UConn had only eight close games, defined here as games won by 15 points or fewer. In just two of those games was the score really tight at half—the Huskies were tied at half in one and leading by three in another—but the end result for each was a double-digit Connecticut victory.

In fact, every single UConn game that season was a double-digit victory. As you might imagine, this was the first time any NCAA Division I basketball team (men’s or women’s) went undefeated and won every game by at least 10.

Last year, UConn had only four close games. Only two of these were “close calls,” both against Stanford. The Huskies trailed by two at half of a December game and were down 20-12 at halftime of the National Championship. The Huskies rallied both times, though their margin in the finals was just six. It was the first UConn victory by fewer than 10 since March 11, 2008, a span of 25 months.

It didn’t take long for UConn to have a close call this season, however. After beating Holy Cross in its opener by 80 points, the second largest margin of victory in school history and largest during the win streak, the Huskies followed it up with their much-anticipated rematch with Brittney Griner and Baylor. Connecticut won 65-64.

“I’m the biggest Geno [Auriemma] fan in America,” said Tom Izzo, Michigan State men’s basketball head coach, during the conference call. “I buy his tape to watch him. I think there are a lot of great programs, but I think the one thing that Geno has done is not to have the letdowns. How he can keep his team at the level he does is almost unreal. I respect him way more for that than his championships. If he’s supposed to beat a team by 20 he beats them by 30. There are few programs that can do that. I hope he breaks the record; I think he deserves it.”

To pick against UConn is obviously a senseless prediction, but going into that epic game against Baylor I thought the Huskies might actually lose. Connecticut is a young team, particularly on the interior, and Griner was able to take advantage, fouling out two UConn freshmen. But the Huskies, as they always do, found a way.

It may not be easy for UConn against Ohio State either. The Buckeyes have a dominant frontcourt player in All-American Jantel Lavender, the nation’s leading scorer at 26.6 points per game. Point guard Samantha Prahalis is averaging 14.5 points and just under 10 assists per game, and it will be a homecoming of sorts for the Long Island native.

Even so, Ohio State head coach Jim Foster, under whom Auriemma was an assistant at St. Joseph’s University in the early 1980’s, will obviously have his hands full with his former pupil.

Next Tuesday, just two days after the Ohio State game, Connecticut faces another top-15 team in Florida State. A rematch with No. 2 Stanford looms at the end of the month. It won’t be easy for UConn to enter 2011 undefeated, and its Big East schedule will feature a handful of ranked opponents.

Of course UConn has faced plenty of very good teams the past two-plus seasons and has come out on top every single time.