The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, April 3, 2019
Our Wooden — Interview with Geno Auriemma — Must-click women’s basketball links
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So I spent the weekend attending games in Albany, and there were certainly fascinating moments throughout.
Whether it is the evolution of Destiny Slocum at Oregon State, what Cori Close is building at UCLA, or the stylings of the great Asia Durr (and highly underrated Jersey product Sam Fuehring) at Louisville, it was a Sweet 16 pod like most: overstuffed with compelling personalities and storylines.
And yet, the last team standing was a familiar one, if how they got there differed from the recent norm: Connecticut, once more, 12 in a row.
You could see that at some level, Geno Auriemma didn’t quite believe it, that his Huskies had won 12 regional finals dating back to 2008 without a miss.
“I don’t think it’s supposed to happen,” Auriemma said. All throughout his postgame presser, he seemed to be making sense of it. “Not in today’s world, the way things change and the way teams keep getting better and better. It’s not normal, and it’s something that’s hard to describe. Because, if you’re writing a book and making it up, people would say that doesn’t happen in real life, and it has happened in real life. I’m still — like you said, I’m boggled. My mind just doesn’t get it, how this could happen this many years in a row with a different cast of characters that change so often. But, no, it’s not normal. It’s not normal.”
What Auriemma is saying is right — the competition keeps getting better, this keeps getting harder. UConn easily could have lost to UCLA in the Sweet 16, trailed them in the third quarter, in fact. A few more open shots go down for Durr early, and Louisville probably beats them, too.
It’s why we probably won’t see a run like Auriemma’s ever again. The women’s game isn’t going to go backwards. The John Wooden comparisons have always struck me as remarkably apt. Wooden had his run of success around 25-35 years after the men’s NCAA Tournament began. Auriemma has done the same thing, truly separating himself and UConn, 25-35 years after the NCAA Women’s Tournament began in 1982. Wooden won his tenth title in 1975, 36 years after the men’s tournament began in 1939. Auriemma won title 11 in 2016, 34 years after the women’s tournament began.
The men’s game evolved to the point where we’ve never seen another Wooden UCLA. There are too many good programs now. The same is clearly true on the women’s side. I believe it’ll take the passage of time to fully appreciate what this run meant. I think, for instance, we’ll have a far greater understanding of just how great the 2016 team was, with eight current or future WNBA players. EIGHT!
So something I try to do is give myself a little distance from it whenever I cover UConn. I try to remind myself that I may not cover a more seminal figure in any sport than Auriemma, that just as Wooden’s words matter all these decades later, so, too, will Auriemma’s, that during a time when sports media was largely run by people who didn’t want to pay attention to women’s basketball, what Auriemma has built in Storrs forced them to pay attention.
There are many stories to tell and programs to highlight. But let’s not lose sight of what this UConn run means in the process.
This Week in Women’s Basketball
Reminder: First, the underlined words are the links. Second. CLICK these, even if you’ve already read them. Clicks = Attention from editors, producers and webmasters. Third, if you want to push out stuff you’ve written or read, email me! firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s Megan Gauer on Player of the Year candidates by win shares.
Great Lyndsey D’Arcangelo on Felisha Legette-Jack, after the Buffalo run.
Dan Connolly ponders life after Geno… someday.
Don’t miss Natalie Weiner on Baylor.
Lindsay Gibbs made quite the stir with her Muffet McGraw piece, which is excellent by any measure.
Matt Fortuna goes big on Notre Dame as well, over at The Athletic.
I greatly enjoyed this Russ Steinberg column on Katie Lou Samuelson.
Robert Silverman’s Layshia Clarendon piece is filled with goodness.
Rachel Galligan has the Kim Mulkey fashion scouting report you didn’t know you needed.
Speaking of fashion, Britni de la Cretaz talked to a ton of coaches about what they wear and why they wear it.
Ben Hochman makes sure the Post-Dispatch knows how the WNBA views Sophie Cunningham.
I wrote this on Notre Dame’s defense for FiveThirtyEight.
Paige Bueckers picked UConn, this is a really big deal.
And I wrote this about Napheesa Collier’s underrated dominance.
Tweet of the Week
Five at The IX: Geno Auriemma
I wanted to give Auriemma a chance to reflect further on what 12 Final Fours means. He always gives us more than we can fit into stories. So! Here’s what he told reporters after his first presser ended. This is second presser only.
REPORTER: You’ve been to a lot. And you said this almost felt like the first time.
GENO AURIEMMA: It did. It did. There was nothing easy about it. Some years, you start the first game of the year, you win by 50, and then you win every other game by either 49 or 51. And everybody just goes, ho hum. And you start to think, “Okay, what’s the big deal here?” And you watch all these other teams when they play, they win an NCAA game and the emotions are unbelievable, or they win a regional and it’s crazy, right?
And I never want to get to a point where all of a sudden, I don’t feel that. And this particular team made it feel that way because of the struggles we went through throughout the season, both the ones you could see and ones you couldn’t see. It was a struggle, and I don’t want this to be a celebration of “We’re going to the Final Four, it’s over.” There’s still a lot of work to be done.
REPORTER: So how do you twist that? How do you make sure that they keep their focus?
GENO AURIEMMA: Well, that’s for another day. Today, I don’t have to worry about it. Today, they can do their thing. Tomorrow, they can do their thing. When we get together again on Tuesday, I think there’ll be the same focus that I talked to them about, that we had last week, to get ready for coming up here.
You play in the Final Four, and we’ve got a couple kids that have played in the Final Four, and depending on who gets there and who wins, there might be a couple teams that have a lot of experience playing in the Final Four.
REPORTER: I know we talked a little about this during the presser, but they were, like you said, ancillary players on this 2016 team. They’ve now, today, they were two of four players, the other two being underclassmen, to play forty minutes. You had six players total in this game, and they took another team to a Final Four. I’m just wondering, in terms of legacy, for that 2016 team now, do you think there’s this sort of long tale to appreciate the amount of greatness on that team?
GENO AURIEMMA: I know. Svetlana Abrosimova came to the game, she flew in from Moscow just for the game. Said, “I can’t come to Final Four,” so she came to the game. And she came to the locker room, and I said to the players, I said, “This is what playing in our program means. This is how it stays with you.”
Ans I remember when Sveta played, we had five Olympians on the court. That was a pretty good team. And when Lou, when Pheesa played, as freshmen, again, they could afford to play poorly, or not play at all, and the outcome wouldn’t have mattered. So for them, now, to come this far, and we don’t have Pheesa and Lou and Gabby coming off the bench like that team did. Now all of a sudden, they look around and it’s like, “I have to do this. I’m not getting any hell. Coach isn’t taking me out. I’m not getting a breather. Lou isn’t gonna make five three-pointers.”
So what Megan did, I think it helped Lou tremendously. This is good. So, yeah, we’ve had some amazing teams, loaded with great, great, great players. Iconic players. This isn’t one of ’em. This is a team of a couple players that are pretty amazing and a couple players that may be amazing down the road.
REPORTER: You’ve talked about how hard this is. Has the magnitude of straight 12 hit you yet?
GENO AURIEMMA: Yeah, I mean, everybody talks about it, so it’s been brought up a bunch of times, but it doesn’t make it any easier to digest. We’ve been in more Final Fours in a row than some Conferences have been in Final Fours, period. It’s hard to wrap everything around in a nice little package and go, “Yeah, this is where this fits.” It doesn’t. It doesn’t fit at all.
And for anybody out there that’s disappointed that we’re in the Final Four, I hate to disappoint you. My guys are just as entitled to go as anybody else’s guys. Kristen and Olivia have never been to a Final Four, so they’re just as entitled to go as any freshman. So, I’m thrilled for them, and it’s not their twelfth in a row. It’s their first. And this is Megan’s second. She didn’t even play in last year’s, and now she’s gonna start and have to play a huge role in this one. So, lot of first times coming up.
REPORTER: Does that make each one special, though, ’cause it is different players each time?
GENO AURIEMMA: Yeah. Yeah. That’s why you never win a game to go to the Final Four and feel like, “Yeah, well, I’ve been there X number of times,” because it’s not about you. It’s about the people that are going there, but I had never seen our coaching staff as happy as they were today, ’cause they put a lot of time into this.