Andrew Sharp: So the UConn women's team is primed to make history Tuesday night by breaking the winning streak held by John Wooden's UCLA teams from the 1970s, and continuing UConn's cartoonish domination of the sport. But before we talk about the women's streak, let me respond to Geno Auriemma's comments from this past weekend:
"I just know that there wouldn't be this many people in the room if we were chasing a women's record. The reason there's everybody in this room, the reason everybody's having a heart attack the last four or five days is a bunch of women are threatening to break a men's record. And everybody is all up in arms about it. All the women are happy as hell and they can't wait to come in here and ask questions. All the guys that love women's basketball are all excited. And all the miserable bastards that follow men's basketball and don't want us to break the record are all here because they're pissed."
Rather than argue about Auriemma's sentiments there, we should ask a simple question: is anybody really "all up in arms" about this?
Maybe the reactions are magnified in Auriemma's world, but who really cares what the UConn women's team is doing? It's impressive, but no more impressive than, say, Trinity squash winning 200 matches in a row and 11 consecutive national titles. In either case, we're talking about a fringe sport where only a handful of programs compete at the highest levels, and talent is incredibly concentrated. Where winning is still impressive, but it becomes more of a Guiness-like spectacle than anything truly compelling.
So, if we don't care about Trinity squash, why would we assume people care about UConn women's basketball?
Andy Hutchins: Hey, just because you don't care about Trinity squash doesn't mean I don't. I mean, I still don't, really, but I'm sure someone does, and I'm sure those people care that Trinity's managed to beat the team it's playing against that many times in a row. (It's the same thing with women's basketball, but we'll get to that.)
Streaks like Trinity's and UConn's are staggering on a purely conceptual level: How hard would it be to win 88 games of — oh, I don't know, Madden? Jenga? chess? — consecutively, and occasionally against some of the best players in the country?
It's when we get into comparing those feats to each other that things get sticky, because some people refuse to concede that men's and women's basketball are in any way comparable. And people (hi, Jim Caple and Patrick Hruby!) really do get "up in arms" about that — especially after master provocateur Geno Auriemma gets to talking — because some people resent women's basketball, ridicule women's basketball, and relegate women's basketball to the hinterlands of "fringe sport" status.
Auriemma was wrong about the uproar: it didn't truly exist until he dropped a match on the kindling. But he's right about it now, and right that the biggest reason a lot of people care about this team is because it's a team of women equaling what a team of men did, and he's right about the people who truly do care about women's basketball being excited about UConn.
There's no need to assume people care about UConn's women's basketball; many, many people do, even if you don't, in the same way that many millions of children watch iCarly weekly. The Huskies draw thousands at home and thousands on the road, and are watched by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, on TV. Dynasties and streaks transcend: those things are why people know who North Carolina women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance is, or why Prairie View is important, or where De La Salle High School is.
And then there are the gawkers who watch for the purpose of finding differences and cracking jokes.
Yeah, the Huskies play with a different ball, have a shorter three-point line, and don't dunk. But no one, or at least no one with a brain and an interest in doing more than knocking down straw men, is asking whether the Huskies would beat Wooden's Bruins (and, uh, they wouldn't); they're only marveling that this team has done what Wooden's did, in dispatching 88 squads consecutively, and has a chance to do more. Streaks are being compared, not sports.
So, Andrew, is this more impressive than UCLA's streak? And if it's not, where does it fall in the continuum of great sports streaks?
Andrew Sharp: First off, why do people resent (and ridicule and relegate) women's college basketball? I can only speak for myself here, but I resent women's hoops because time and again, people will make me feel guilty if I don't concede that the women's game comparable to its counterpart on the men's side. It's a leap of faith that gets punished when I end up watching games like last year's matchup between UConn and Stanford, a game in which UConn trailed 20-12 at halftime.
Resentment arises when the men's game shows the women to be vastly less interesting, and yet, year after year, we're asked to pretend our eyes have deceived us, and the games aren't divided by vast gaps in athleticism and aesthetics. If we continue to disagree, we're labeled as small-minded sexists. Like, excuse me for preferring more entertaining basketball, Geno.
I hear what you're saying about winning streaks, though. The challenge of doing anything successfully for 89 consecutive games (or 200+, with Trinity) is nothing to ridicule. But isn't that still sort of a novelty? Like, it's impressive, but the Globetrotters had some impressive winning streaks, too. And UCLA's run falls into this category as well.
It's just hard to be that impressed when the talent disparity is as drastic as it seems with UConn. Especially when gathering the talent has become so routine (as it has in Storrs, as it was in Westwood). If nothing else, this latest UConn streak exposes the greatest flaw with winning streaks, in general. We're witnessing the greatest execution in the history of their sport, and yet, it's nowhere near as interesting as the Tennessee-UConn rivalry highlighted here. And for all the dominance of Wooden's UCLA teams, if I could watch a team from the '70s, it'd be David Thompson's North Carolina State teams.
So rather than offer some kneejerk appraisal of the streak's merits, how about this? Winning streaks are impressive and make us learn names like Anson Dorrance, but they're much harder to appreciate. There's something about winning all the time that leaves us cold. We watch sports to see teams get pushed to the brink and see how they respond. When that doesn't happen very often, since we can't see the mental strain behind a win streak like UConn's, it's harder for us to relate.
When it's hard to relate to excellence, it's much easier to resent it. This is why UConn's women's college basketball team is terrible for women's college basketball.
Andy Hutchins: In watching UConn's NCAA Tournament Final win over Stanford, you ended up watching the single worst game either UConn or Stanford played last year. Congrats!
Women's basketball fans who saw that game as a possible entry point for new fans — myself included — were horrified by that game. It was bad. Really bad. The Cardinal's Jayne Appel, one of the nation's top three players last year went 0-12 from the field. (While playing on a stress fracture, of course.) But, eh, bad games happen; that one just happened to the two best teams in the game at the worst possible time. And though as fans, we're prone to hyperbole, we shouldn't judge women's basketball exclusively based on the worst moment, or the best one.
We also shouldn't react to it or try to engage with it if we're doing so based on guilt or on some sort of duty as sports fans to try to like everything; that never works, and there's a place for people who want hacky jokes about women's basketball to reinforce their ignorance of it. (Bill Simmons calls them his readers, right?)
Fans of women's hoops know that even the best women's player, to this point, won't soar like average Division I men's player. We've long since accepted that, and we don't mind that. Moore and Candace Parker and Brittney Griner — my goodness, Brittney Griner — are compelling and aesthetically pleasing to us, and so are dozens of other players we've come to know and love.
If they don't matter to you, that's cool. We don't have a monopoly on knowing what is interesting, and preferring men's basketball to women's basketball because it's more exciting and more athletic — or at least very differently athletic — doesn't make someone a sexist. Neither does claiming that the only really interesting basketball is men's basketball.
There is resentment for women's basketball, of course, and some of that is deliberately sexist, some of it is inadvertently sexist, and some of it is dismissive in a way that has nothing to do with sexism. But it will fade as women's basketball finds its footing. Just look at the jokes about the WNBA being an NBA tax write-off: who's laughing now that, as SLAM's Ben York notes, the WNBA is more than breaking even while the NBA loses hundreds of millions?
Now, uh, getting back to UConn: yeah, they're far and away the best.
The UConn-Stanford rivalry that popped up after Pat Summitt decided to all but kill the UConn-Tennessee rivalry hasn't been as compelling, and there's no other titan quite like this mighty UConn program. 31 ranked teams have fallen during the Huskies' streak, 21 more than Wooden's UCLA team beat in its run, but only two by single digits. And Griner's got the potential to be the greatest women's basketball player ever, but is still very raw on offense — between that, Baylor's talent deficit, and the Bears losing their starting point guard just before the season, Baylor was probably a huge underdog in their November game, and could still only push the Huskies.
There are no great rivals in this UConn era, though, and you're right that that hurts: the best thing about streaks is how they defy mounting odds and survive threats. That's what makes hitting streaks in baseball as fascinating as Brett Favre's consecutive starts streak was excruciating: the former seem like they can end at any time; the latter seemed endless. UConn's is far more like the latter, especially to the average fan, even though this year's Huskies aren't invincible in the way they were with Moore and Charles — heck, they might not be the best team Geno Auriemma's had in the last decade. (I see you, TASSK Force.)
It's hard to appreciate greatness that's based on consistency and without threats. UConn's brand is both, and in a forum frequently dismissed as boring. To many, it's about as exciting as mediocrity. Not all, but many.
But we often forget that women's basketball is young, really young — ESPN is older than the NCAA Women's Tournament — and has a lot of room to grow. The UConn dynasty led by Diana Taurasi didn't kill the sport; neither will Maya Moore's reign. And if the Huskies aren't great for the competitiveness of women's college basketball, they do at least do wonders for awareness.
Andrew Sharp: That's fair. The women's game is young. And I used to be like you, arguing to friends that as time passed, the dynasty-centric landscape would even out. After all, UCLA made the college game bigger than ever, and parity emerged in their wake.
But here we are in 2010, and UConn's more dominant than anyone, ever. It's a microcosm of a larger issue: the women's games aren't getting more interesting. It's not as if UConn is dominating because they play in some futuristic, revolutionary way. That's a threshold the game still hasn't crossed. Even the two most revolutionary athletes on the women's landscape — Brittney Griner and Candace Parker — are completely pedestrian compared to, say, Mason Plumlee.
I wouldn't argue that skeptics like me have a monopoly on what's interesting, but I think it's okay to look at men's and women's hoops on an intellectual level and say that, in a lot of ways, the women's game is inferior. It's not a pig-headed approach; I just don't care for two-handed jumpshots. People don't go wide-eyed when women's players dunk; they squint to see whether she successfully touched rim. Maybe that's exhilarating for some, but not me.
And that's why I'm okay with people making fun of women's hoops. Regardless of any jokes, when people out there insist it's "the same game with different players," or that "basketball is basketball," it's hard not to laugh. And as long as skeptics get thrown under the bus by women's hoops evangelists, it'll continue.
But I feel bad now, and UConn just won, so let me stop there. Congrats to Maya Moore (she's dope), and all the women's fans sharing in the triumph. The UConn team's greatness is hard to appreciate, and like you said, it's even harder to appreciate since so many people already think they're playing an inferior game. What they've done is incredible, and they don't deserve to have their accomplishment turned into a referendum on the sport. But on that one, they really only have their coach to blame. And people like us!
So with that, you get the last word, and please, tear my arguments to shreds and give the UConn women the credit they deserve. What'd you think of the game? How insane is Maya Moore? And is Geno Auriemma the best coach in men's or women's college basketball?
Andy Hutchins: Yeah, I still do think the dynasty-centric landscape will even out. It's been 28 years since the first NCAA Women's Tournament, and UConn has seven titles. (Tennessee has eight!) The UCLA comparison's a good one: Wooden's Bruins had 10 in the first 36 editions of the NCAA Men's Tournament. But here's where it gets really good: the school has just one since.
Geno Auriemma's great, but he's probably not the best coach in all of college basketball when full careers are considered. I might go with Mike Krzyzewski, with four titles over 20 years and a terrifyingly good chance at a fifth in 2011, or Pat Summitt, whose Lady Vols have been less dominant than this decade's Huskies, but more consistent. (The first time in the history of the women's game that the Lady Vols failed to reach an NCAA Sweet Sixteen was in 2009.)
It's hard not to call Geno the best over the last 10 years, however: he has one three-peat, should get another, and has two streaks of more than 70 wins this decade, which is more than double the number of games he's lost this decade. Even though UConn doesn't deal with attrition on the level of an NBA or big-time men's college team, a three-peat or a winning streak like the one UConn is on requires both great players — ones Auriemma keeps getting to come to rather drowsy Storrs — and superb coaching.
He's also not going to coach forever. (At 56, though, he's seven years younger than Coach K and has 11 fewer years under his belt than Summitt.) There will be another coach at UConn, and another coach at Tennessee, and someone to replace Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer. Dynasties die, and Connecticut won't defy that fate. And when one of the huge football-rich schools in the South decides to get serious about women's hoops, we'll have a new dynasty.
In the meantime, the Huskies might just convince people to like women's basketball on its own terms. Many will always elect to watch something that's not "inferior," but John Wooden's grandson — dragged to the XL Center in Hartford last night to serve as ESPN's stand-in lodestone for worshipers of Wooden and his "fundamentals" and "pyramid" — said that the Wizard of Westwood's favorite brand of basketball in his old age was the women's game. That will be a draw for many, and always has been.
That's not why I watch. I watch for players like Maya Moore. I love her preternatural fluidity and strength, and I love seeing all that she can do on offense and defense. She had it all last night, pouring in 26 points in the first half and scoring 41, a career high, to go with 10 rebounds, three assists, three blocks, and a steal. Oh, and she made 15 of 24 shots and committed zero turnovers. Insane is an understatement; she's forcing herself into the conversation about the greatest women's players of all time.
And, yeah she might get torched by Kyrie Irving. But who cares? She's only going to be pitted against him by people who need facile comparisons.
I genuinely like the sport beyond just Moore, though, and while I don't begrudge anyone who's tried it and decided not to their opinion, I find it harder and harder to believe that even people predisposed to disliking it don't see anything in it.
If more people tried to get into women's basketball without requiring it to be what they want basketball to be, more would respect it. If more people grasped "UConn broke UCLA's record" has everything to do with 89 being a greater number than 88 and nothing to do with judgments of which streak or team was or is better, UConn would be better appreciated.
Of course, we can't quantify that respect, and never will; respect is limitless credit that you, me, and every fan in America can grant and withdraw, but never spend. What can be quantified? Eyeballs. And if you watched Tuesday night's game, Geno Auriemma and women's hoops won.
Even if you or I don't watch, though, Maya Moore will keep balling. And so will the girl that wants to become Maya Moore, the one that begged someone to take her to Wal-Mart to get a basketball tonight after the game, or the one that went out into the driveway in the cold, Nikes on, working on a jumper. That's why women's basketball's only going to get bigger: these women succeeding is proof to girls that they can do the same, or more.
It'll grow, you watch. Or, well, don't. (Hey, did you miss No. 3 Duke beating No. 4 Xavier on a last-second block?) That's fine, too:
"I don't want my team to compare themselves to anyone. I'm not John Wooden and this isn't UCLA. This is Connecticut and that's good enough."
As always, Geno Auriemma gets the last word.