Here’s a tip for Mississippi State fans seeking to steer Louisville coach Jeff Walz off his game Friday during their women's NCAA Tournament semifinal at Nationwide Arena: Forget about heckling or calling him names.
Just pose the question whether the dominance of Connecticut — a program built almost from scratch and sustained by Geno Auriemma and associates that since the 1990s has ruled like no other team in any sport — is good for the women’s game.
“They’re absolutely great for women's basketball,” Walz said this week.
Then he turned the table, knowing UConn, which meets Notre Dame in the second semifinal Friday, gained renewed criticism for its 140-52 romp over running-and-gunning-but-mostly-missing St. Francis in a first-round NCAA game. Some pundits called it a black eye for women’s basketball.
“My only question is when Alabama goes to play for a national championship (in football), are you all asking them if they’re bad for the game because they beat the crap out of somebody 66-30 starting off the year?” Walz said. “They sweep through the SEC, beating the tar out of everybody. Do they call down there and say, man, they’re bad for the game? No.
“It’s what everybody does because nobody wants to see somebody have excellence like (the Huskies) have had. Actually, it’s getting to a point now where it’s like, ‘Guys, should he lose to make all of you happy?’ They’ve done a remarkable job. Give credit where credit is due.”
Or take aim, as most programs have in the past 18 years as UConn and Auriemma have supplanted Tennessee and Pat Summitt as the most prized trophy available in the game. In fact, Auriemma’s team is so hunted now that it begs the question whether the 64-year-old coach has considered having a target tattooed on his back.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said with a laugh. “The two things I’ve thought about getting: A target tattoo on my back and a sign saying ‘Don’t ask me why I don’t coach men’s basketball.’ If I could do away with those, I'd be a happy camper.”
The ink needed to list the Huskies’ accomplishments would require in fine print. Consider these highlights:
• They’ve won a Division I record 11 national championships, starting with the unbeaten 1995 team led by Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti.
• They won four straight titles from 2013-16, and three straight from 2002-04.
• Friday will mark Connecticut’s 11th consecutive appearance in the Final Four, besting the major-college basketball mark of 10 set by John Wooden and the UCLA men from 1967-76.
• They’ve made the NCAA Tournament 30 straight seasons, the first coming in 1989, Auriemma’s fourth year on the job after taking over a program that had recorded just one winning record since its inception 11 years earlier.
• They’ve gone on multiple long winning streaks, including a record 111, snapped in last year’s Final Four. That topped their run of 90 wins, which Stanford ended in December 2010. Along the way they’ve had six undefeated seasons, and are working on a seventh, standing 36-0 at the moment.
• Their alumni list reads like a Who’s Who of basketball star power. Among UConn’s 16 first-team All-Americans are Lobo, Rizzotti, Kara Wolters, Shea Ralph, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Renee Montgomery, Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart.
Such accomplishments help build the attraction, like new roller coasters once did for Cedar Point. But great expectations for a new thrill ride now arrive in lock step each season.
“That’s kind of what we have to deal with every day,” Auriemma said. “I think you have to try really, really hard to recruit the kind of players that are ultra-competitive, that are not satisfied with just being really good, that want to be great, and that want to be coached really, really hard.”
Recruits, Auriemma added, want to be part of something special and they realize they’re in the right place when they see the banners.
“You come to Connecticut, and you look up on those walls when you come to our practice facility, and you go, ‘Well, I’m going to be here four years. What in God’s name can I accomplish that hasn’t already been done?’ ” Auriemma said. “If you’re in awe by that, or you’re intimidated by that, then you’re not going to be successful here and we’re not going to be successful.”
Rizzotti was in on the ground floor of that banner-hanging. The point guard on UConn’s 1995 team, Rizzotti is now head coach at George Washington and president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, which will host its annual convention here this weekend.
“Back then, the program certainly wasn’t what it is now, but it was still one of the better programs in the region,” the Connecticut native said. “They’d actually gotten to a Final Four for the first time in 1991, so they felt like they were on the cusp of doing something special and wanted me to be a part of that.”
She could tell immediately that Auriemma had a plan, and more than that, he had the special mix of basketball acumen and recruiting savvy that sets the successful coaches apart.
“He does have a certain amount of charm to him as far as being able to win people over, but there is also a genuineness about who he is and that he tells the truth,” Rizzotti said. “I never felt like he was trying to sell me something that wasn’t real.”
Now 23 years removed from that first title, even she is amazed by the UConn tsunami that has swept repeatedly across the game.
“I don’t think any of us saw it coming, including Geno himself,” Rizzotti said. “Certainly we knew what we had built, and I think any coach that has success thinks they can sustain it, though I don’t know if people realize how hard it is to sustain it at that level.”
She cited a consistent model Auriemma built in terms of recruiting certain kinds of players, holding them to high standards, and having there be strict attention to details on and off the court. “They stuck with those standards and were able to keep it going,” Rizzotti said.
It’s akin to the program a teenage Auriemma once admired from afar — Wooden’s UCLA teams.
“I was at an age where I could appreciate everything they were doing,” he said. “You were just captivated by them, everything about them — the way they played, the uniforms they wore, the way they looked on the court, their unbelievable accomplishments, the air about them. You could feel it across the TV set.”
At the same time, he added, “I always thought, ‘What in God’s name must it be like to be in that program every single day?’ ”
He is living the answer.
“Now I know why John Wooden retired at a young age because in some ways, it’s exhausting. It really is.”
He then stopped himself.
“Listen, as I’m saying this I’m going, ‘Man, you know, there’s going to be 5,000 coaches at the Final Four this week, and they’re going to read it and say, yeah, I wish I had your problems.’ I get that.
“But I tell you what, you wish you had my problems for like one year. You don’t want to be in this position for 25 years because … it takes a lot. It takes an unbelievable staff. It takes knowing that you have to get a certain kind of player every year. Believe me, after all these years, I’m still amazed that it turns out the way it does. The hardest part about being in this seat is trying to convince yourself that, ‘Hey, it’s OK if you don't win a national championship.’ ”
Don’t misunderstand: He wants to win another one — this weekend, in fact. His team has been on a mission since losing to Mississippi State in the semis a year ago. It has been a sight to behold, a star-studded team at times running roughshod over foes.
But does it diminish the game when one team is perennially dominant?
Louisiana State coach Nikki Fargas played at Tennessee during its heyday in the early 1990s, and was a Volunteers assistant coach under Summit, whose teams won eight titles from 1987-2008.
“If you have the best team in the country and you’re showcasing it year in, year out, there’s nothing anybody can say about that,” Fargas said. Opponents, she added, need to “work harder in the offseason and do what Mississippi State did.”
Mississippi State, in the role of David, knocked off Goliath UConn in the semifinals with an on-target fling of the rock by Morgan Willam at the buzzer in overtime last year. It was huge news.
“Any chance that the women’s game is able to get national publicity in the midst of professional sports, I think it’s good for your game,” Rizzotti said. “It’s a positive thing.
“But as far as going into the NCAA Tournament and people thinking there’s no one that can beat them, last year’s game with Mississippi State proved them wrong. … That could be the biggest spotlight we could have on our game, if Mississippi State and UConn have a rematch in the Final Four.”