Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies have turned women’s college basketball into their own showcase.
Over the past two decades, the Hall of Fame coach and his players have been the face of the sport, winning nine championships and poised to make a run at a 10th title. They have given casual fans of the game a brand they can identify with, and along the way become the kind of villain that everyone likes to hate.
And the always candid Auriemma is unapologetic, particularly with anyone who paints his program as the big bad empire that no one can dethrone.
“It’s not like we’ve done something that can’t be done,” said Auriemma, who has been at UConn for 30 years and posted his 900th win this season. “That’s not my fault that it’s not getting done at other places.
“I don’t want to stop setting the bar, and it’s up to everybody else to try to get there.”
It’s a high bar. UConn has won four titles in the past six seasons and a trip to the Final Four every year in that span. Only the UCLA men’s team from 1964-75 has had a better stretch, winning 10 national championships.
The Huskies (32-1) begin this year’s tournament run on Saturday against St. Francis, Brooklyn (15-18).
“They’ve been at the top of their game for over a decade and no one’s been able to dethrone them year in and year out,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who’s Gamecocks are also a No. 1 seed in the tournament. “If they’re the best our game has, you do have to talk about them.
“The games still have to be played. But until then, they’re going to talk about UConn a lot and deservedly so.”
There’s no question the 60-year-old Auriemma has worked for his success.
Connecticut wasn’t this championship machine when he took over the program. He has built it in his image, his teams are focused, play hard and determined to succeed. What rubs some the wrong way is the brash confidence with which Auriemma summarily brushes aside any negativity — whether it was whispers about being a male coach in the women’s game or questions whether UConn’s dominance is good for the sport.
Rewind to Monday night’s selection show.
When Auriemma was asked about opposing coaches dreading being in the same region as UConn, there was no politically correct response. He simply noted, if that’s the case the other team’s already lost.
“They should be feeling like this is a great opportunity,” he said. “If they moan and groan about it the whole time then they might as well not show up because we’ll beat them by 50.”
Then there’s the frosty relationship between Auriemma and fellow coaches. He openly says what many coaches believe, they’re competing to win, not make friends.
Auriemma said before a matchup with Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw that it’s tough to be rivals and friends.
The Irish have been the only real thorn to the Huskies over the past five seasons. The former Big East rivals met 17 times during that span and the Irish won seven of those games — including two in the Final Four. The teams also played in last season’s historic national championship game that featured two undefeated teams. UConn came away with a 21-point win to complete its 40-0 season.
“I believe there’s a misconception in sports that you are supposed to have an intense rivalry that’s good for the game and yet remain or become something (a friendship) off the court,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know that to be the case in any sport. I really don’t.”
UConn beat Notre Dame again in that December showdown by 18 points and has won games by an average of 42 points this season, including victories over South Carolina and Duke. The lone blemish on their record is an overtime loss in the second game of the season to Stanford. That defeat is the only loss in the past 79 games for the Huskies and it drew more attention than most Huskie wins.
That’s what happens to dominant teams like the Yankees, or the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s. It’s a spot Connecticut players relish.
“We’ve worked for that. That’s something that we feel like is an honor,” said UConn senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. “If you don’t have (people hating you) then what are you really working for? We know that we have to work 10 times as hard, just because those people want us to lose and they’re always going to play their best games against us.
“So, by all means, we’ll wear the black hat if that means that we’ve being doing our jobs right.”
To their legion of fans and television networks, the Huskies are heroes.
They are a must-see show on the road. Schools routinely triple their normal attendance when UConn comes to town. They draw better TV ratings for ESPN than any other women’s basketball team, nearly doubling the viewership of other games. That’s even when they are winning by large amounts.
While some coaches grumble about how ESPN only shows a few teams in its broadcasts during the regular season, analyst Doris Burke said the women’s game needs people to pay attention, and UConn does that.
“Because they’ve sustained their excellence,” Burke said, “if you’re listening casually with a TV in the background, you stop if you hear them mentioned.”
Tennessee used to be the school that others tried to emulate. Pat Summitt helped the game grow in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Huskies recent success isn’t lost on Tennessee, which hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2008.
“It gives us a carrot to chase. It’s a dangling carrot. It’s the rabbit in the dog track so to speak,” said Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood. “Absolutely, they’ve clearly created a standard of excellence here in recent years.”
The Huskies are poised to raise the bar even higher, looking to cap off their second three-peat in the past 13 years.
Anyone who doesn’t like it, well, just knock them off.
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli and Steve Megargee and Associated Press Writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.
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