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The Long Conn
By Jeff Mount Posted in NCAA on February 22, 2017 0 Comments
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Is it possible to win a hundred games in a row and be underrated?  Apparently so, because what Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut women’s basketball team have accomplished is at least as impressive as what the Patriots did in the Super Bowl or the Cubs ending their World Series drought in November. It is time to recognize Auriemma as one of the half dozen or so greatest coaches in any sport ever. 

Let’s get some perspective here. In the last nine years, Connecticut has lost twelve games. So far this year they have remained undefeated despite having scheduled road games against #6 Notre Dame,  #2 Maryland, and #7 Florida State, as well as home games against #4 Baylor, #5 South Carolina, #8 Texas, #12 Ohio State, and #15 DePaul.  They have remained undefeated despite losing their three top scorers from last year.  They are winning by an average of 32 points per game, and they are holding their opponents to a shooting percentage of .344 overall while shooting .390 from three point range themselves. They would rank in the top twenty among men’s teams in overall point differential – if their games ended after one quarter.  If not for an overtime loss at Stanford in the second game of the 2014-15 season their streak would be at 147 games.  Connecticut has not lost to a team ranked lower than sixth nationally in 190 games.  Since the beginning of the 2012-13 season they have lost a one point game, a two point game, a six point game, an overtime game, and a triple overtime game.   That’s how close we are to what would be, by the end of this season, a 200 game winning streak.  It is a level of sustained dominance that has not been seen from any team in any sport.  Ever. 

It is easy to attribute this accomplishment to a general lack of parity in women’s college basketball, and that argument has gotten stronger since Connecticut moved from the Big East to the American Conference, where they can pad their record against teams like Tulsa and East Carolina. To illustrate the issue, so far this season the top ten teams in the women’s rankings have lost a total of seven games to unranked teams, while the top ten men’s teams have lost sixteen. There are very few men’s teams in the major conferences who are not at least capable of beating a top ten team if they get hot, while probably half of the women’s teams in the major conferences have no chance against a top ten team.  While the parity has gotten better over the past decade, there is still a ways to go before the best teams face a true challenge every time they take the court.         

It’s also easier for Auriemma because when he recruits a top high school player, he is reasonably certain she will be around for four years. While Breanna Stewart was the consensus player of the year for three consecutive seasons (and Brittney Griner won back to back the two years before that), Tyler Hansbrough is the only men’s player since 1983 to return to school after winning the Wooden Award. 

But still… Since UCLA set the men’s record with 88 consecutive wins almost half a century ago, the longest men’s winning streak is UNLV’s 45 game streak that stretched over two seasons and included the 1990 NCAA championship.  Kentucky got to 38 a few years ago, but even if they had gotten through the Final Four and finished 40-0 their streak would have ended after seven games the following year, still less than halfway to what Connecticut has done. 

Here’s what may be the most impressive thing about Auriemma. Of the six players who have started at least one game for Connecticut this year, only one is a senior. Two are sophomores; one is a freshman. It is one of the youngest teams he has ever had. Yet he has signed four of the top forty recruits for next year. Any of those four players could go practically anywhere else, be guaranteed to start immediately, and spend four years being the go-to player on her team. When they signed with Connecticut, they knew the talent that was ahead of them in the pecking order, and they know that even more talent will be coming behind them to compete for playing time. Year after year, Auriemma has been able to recruit the very best players, even though they often have to wait a year or two to play significant minutes. His players subjugate their egos and play the roles assigned to them. Their physical dominance is so overwhelming that you assume they are winning on pure talent, which can blind you to their intensity on defense and their impeccable fundamentals. They are ranked in the top fifteen in the nation in fewest turnovers, free throw percentage, and fewest fouls committed — little things that teams with dominant talent often don’t emphasize because they don’t need to. 

It also bears mentioning that Auriemma’s teams had a 100 percent graduation rate the last time such things were counted, and that he has coached over thirty years without even a tiny scandal. He has also won three Olympic gold medals and two FIBA world championships. He will win his 1000th game early next season – if he does it without losing any more games, which isn’t unlikely, he will reach it in about sixty fewer games than Pat Summitt and about 170 fewer games than Mike Krzyzewski. Barring a monumental upset, this will be his twelfth national championship, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t win several more. When we talk about Belichick and Popovich and Saban as the coaching titans of this era, and perhaps of all time, we need to include Geno Auriemma right there with them. 

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