Geno Auriemma did not invent the game.
Senda Berenson organized the first women’s basketball team at Smith College in 1892, a year after Dr. Naismith wrote down his 13 rules and nailed a peach basket to a balcony at the Springfield YMCA. Title IX passed with the Educational Amendments of 1972, and, ever since, the women’s game has grown apace at all levels. The WNBA has been in business for 21 years.
This weekend, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Mississippi State and Louisville are convened for the NCAA women’s Final Four in Nationwide Arena. Columbus is the temporary center of an increasingly competitive universe, and that much will be plain as soon as the first national semifinal tips off Friday night. One hundred twenty six years of development will reach another zenith.
UConn is not a lock to win it all.
The Huskies have, under Auriemma, been to 19 Final Fours since 1991 and won 11 titles since 1995. If you’re not a bookmaker, you’d make their odds at about 3-2. That’s pretty good — but it’s not a lead-pipe cinch.
That said, there are very few comparisons for UConn’s success the past three decades. The UCLA men of the 1960s and 1970s is a natural — with the difference being that nobody accused John Wooden of somehow ruining the game. Mythmakers deified him. Basketball coaches watched him closely and read his book.
Auriemma needs to be demystified in this same way. He has been deified by some and somehow vilified by others. There is not another coach in America whose id, ego and superego have been parsed to the same degree. Bah. You know what Geno is? He’s a great coach. Period.
Jeff Jacobs is a longtime Connecticut sports columnist who, outside of a canceled flight here and a heart attack there, has covered all but a few of UConn’s Final Four seasons.
He said, “It’s a myth that he gets all the best players; he knows what he wants and he gets them. And he has a knack for projecting. He sees them at 17 and he knows if they understand how to play the game and have a willingness to be coached. That’s the big thing, the willingness to be coached. … He’s very tough on freshmen.”
The talent pool has never been larger. The players Auriemma finds sound like sophomore guard Crystal Dangerfield, who was asked about Final Four motivation and answered thusly: “I think (it’s) the history of the program. The players that came before us have really built this program up, and I don’t want to be a part of the team that lets that drop or slide in any way.”
Now, put that aside for a second. Forget that success at UConn is often measured by national titles and undefeated seasons. Watch them play.
It’s beautiful. Take heed of the pace and efficiency of their fast breaks. Look at the way the ball moves in their half-court offense, how they are spaced, how they cut. Depending on matchups, they’ll run a high-low post game, and when the ball goes into to low post it bounces back outside a split-second before weak-side help arrives. Every time. These are smart basketball players who play a consummate team game.
“He coaches and appreciates the artistry of offense in his sport, as too few other coaches do,” Jacobs said. “He’s not coaching in a relentless pursuit of zero (points against). This year, without a superstar, has been a lot about defense and transition, but what he always seeks is the perfect game. That represents accomplishment for him, and he appreciates it in others.”
The talent pool has never been larger. The rest of the country is catching up, slowly but surely. It would have happened to Wooden, too, had he not gotten out when he did. Auriemma keeps going.