UConn too successful for good of women’s game?

One name is noticeably absent from the list of teams that
UConn’s women have trampled en route to the record and beyond:

Tennessee.

That’s not a coincidence. As with just about everything else in
women’s hoops, Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt saw this day coming
before the rest of us. Since the Huskies and coach Geno Auriemma
won the first of six national titles in 1995, Tennessee and
Summitt, with five over that span, have been their only real
rivals.

But all of last season and so far throughout this one, no one
has even been close to the Huskies.

Two years ago, Summitt unilaterally called off the annual
regular-season grudge match between the two schools. Ostensibly, it
was because of a bitter recruiting battle over current Huskies star
Maya Moore. More likely, though, the winningest coach in the
women’s game already understood that beating the loaded program
Auriemma was building at Connecticut just once each season, let
alone twice, was going to take an inspired effort.

So, she may well have reasoned, why not take that shot during
the NCAA tournament? And here’s hoping that the selection committee
agrees, giving Tennessee a No. 1 seed on the opposite side of the
bracket, where they won’t collide with the Lady Vols until the
Final Four at the earliest.

If that happens, it may be the only game worth watching.

“We’re going to have to play whoever is in our way to get
there,” Auriemma said of playing Tennessee. “If it’s them, great,
and if it’s not I’m not going to lose any sleep over it either
way.”

Small wonder. A day after the hoopla subsided, his Huskies were
just as businesslike as ever. They subdued West Virginia 60-32
Tuesday night to claim a 16th Big East title and extend their
unbeaten streak to 72 games. The path to a seventh national
championship could hardly look clearer.

The last time the Huskies lost was in the semis at the 2008
Final Four. No team has come within 10 points since. You can count
on one hand how many times UConn has trailed in the second half
over that stretch (three, but never by more than two points) and
with the other hand, keep track of how many minutes (fewer than
four).

Yet nothing better illustrates how thoroughly the Huskies have
drained the suspense from the upcoming NCAA tournament than a poll
ESPN conducted earlier this week. Asked how their level of interest
in the women’s game was changed by UConn’s winning streak, 69
percent of the respondents said it remained the same, 18 percent
chose “less” and 12 percent chose “more.”

Good taste prevents us from printing the first part of
Auriemma’s reaction to those numbers. Suffice it to say he wasn’t
thrilled.

“There’s nothing I can do about it or want to do about it. I
come to practice everyday. We play,” Auriemma said.

“There’s guys in the Olympics that won curling medals. If you
ask anybody in America, ‘What’s your view of curling?’ I don’t
think athletes or coaches or anybody give a damn what other people
think. We do it because we enjoy doing it. We don’t do it so that
other people like us.

“If they like us, they like us. If they don’t, they don’t. This
is America, watch whatever you want. You don’t have to watch us,”
he added.” I’m OK with that.”

Auriemma’s tough-guy persona is the biggest reason UConn’s women
never lack for motivation.

What makes them unbeatable is not just that they’re better
individually than the people they’re matched up against, or even
that they’re more disciplined as a unit. It’s that they’re
hungrier, night in and night out, than every team they play. That
won’t change, no matter who the Huskies wind up facing in the
tournament.

Neither of the other two likely No. 1 seeds figure to be a
problem. Stanford shot nearly 60 percent in the first half of its
game against UConn in December, led by two at halftime and again
early in the second half. Then the Huskies went on a 30-6 run and
won by 12 going away.

Unbeaten Nebraska is a senior-dominated squad, but has little
experience to fall back on and its best wins have come against
teams from the second tier of the Top 25. The Cornhuskers will be
battling nerves just to reach the Final Four. Expecting them to
beat UConn in their first turn on the game’s biggest stage would be
asking too much.

That brings it back to Tennessee. The Lady Vols have plenty of
incentive and enough size to match up with UConn’s imposing front
line. In what would make for a delicious story line, considering
her central role in the tug-of-war between Auriemma and Summitt,
the Lady Vols would have to find someone both big and skilled
enough to contain Maya Moore.

That scenario doesn’t appear to worry Auriemma any more than a
dozen others.

“I don’t look forward to playing any team or not playing any
team,” he said.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org