COLUMBUS, Ohio — UConn women's basketball is 36-0, preparing for its 19th Final Four appearance and shooting for a 12th national championship and seventh undefeated season at the Women's Final Four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus this weekend.
Yet for the second time this week, UConn coach Geno Auriemma went on the defensive when asked about the symbiotic relationship between the success of this dynasty and the health of women's basketball. Why is UConn still successful? Auriemma offered two reasons, the first laced with sarcasm.
"It's because every single player coming out of high school goes to Connecticut," he said at his Thursday news conference. "No other good player goes to any other school in America.
"I don't know how (Louisville coach Jeff Walz) and (Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw) and (Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer) got here if we have all the best players. So Connecticut has all the best players in America. Everybody else we play against is a terrible player. That explains our success. That's the easy answer."
UConn heads into a matchup with Notre Dame (33-3) in a Final Four that boasts four No. 1 seeds that have a combined record of 140-6 this season. Then, Auriemma launches into the truth that detractors of the Huskies' dominance don't want to hear.
"The true answer is we get the kind of kids that fit exactly what we want, what we do, and how we do things," Auriemma said. "That doesn't mean they weren't the best players coming out of high school. For sure, they were. But we've been very, very fortunate, for the most part, to get those kids that come out of high school and they want to be coached the way I coach, and they're not afraid to walk into our building, look up at the walls, see those names and see those banners and go, 'I got this.'"
You want to beat UConn? You have two options. The first is to succumb to long-term intimidation by a program with better players, lose, then come up with excuses why that system is better.
ESPN analyst and former Huskies star Rebecca Lobo knows them well.
"It's just become old and tired," Lobo said in an interview with Sporting News. "It's time to be smarter and better than that. If somebody within the women's basketball community who follows the game, who watches the game, wanted to bring that up and have an intelligent conversation about it and brings facts to support their argument that would be a healthy discussion to have. … I think we're at a place now that enough people are telling the real stories that we don't need that."
How do you beat UConn? Find an aggressive way to beat their system without losing your identity. It's the same lesson across the other sports: Don't give in to the intimidation and be the aggressor.
That's why the Eagles threw a reverse pass to quarterback Nick Foles in Super Bowl 52 to beat the Patriots. That's why Clemson's Deshaun Watson went for the win with two seconds left against Alabama in the 2017 College Football championship game. That's how Mississippi State upset UConn 66-64 in overtime in the Final Four last season. It can be done.
And when it does, understand this isn't a one-shot deal. Alabama won the national championship last season. New England will be a Super Bowl favorite next season. UConn is the favorite among the four No. 1 seeds in Columbus. Why is that a bad thing? That requires one answer, not two: It's not.
"I've not read too much about Serena being bad for women's tennis. Last time I checked, she wins most of them when she's healthy and ready to go," Auriemma said. "I've not read too much about Roger Federer is really bad for men's tennis. The only time he doesn't win is when he doesn't win, which is not often. I remember when people, when Tiger was just destroying the PGA field and people were saying that guy's terrible for golf. No one else can compete."
Who is the favorite at the Masters next week? Is that a bad thing? Alabama hasn’t been bad for ratings in the College Football Playoff era. The Patriots aren’t bad for Super Bowl ratings. They have a system. It’s on you to beat it. Those teams won’t beat themselves.
UConn’s system has been in place for more than three decades, through the power struggle with the dominant Pat Summitt teams at Tennessee. Only now, there are more teams vying for that championship. Auriemma said repeatedly this week that it’s harder than ever to get back to the Final Four — a lesson the Huskies taught defending national champion South Carolina in the Elite Eight.
Still, there are three other No. 1 seeds who have elevated their programs as a result. Schaefer talked about having a target on Mississippi State, which lost the national championship game last season.
"I think this team has tried to embrace that and done a great job with that," Schaefer said. "We have not run from the target on our back all year."
Try doing it every year. Auriemma joked two days earlier about having that target tattooed on his back — along with a sign that reads, "Stop asking me if I'm going to coach men’s basketball."
The difference? Auriemma and UConn wear that target, win or lose. This year he took 12 players — one from 11 different states and a province in Canada — and blended them into another undefeated team that doesn't see it so much as a burden as another chance to succeed. There's nothing bad or boring about it. They've got this.
"We get our kids to do stuff that's really hard to do," Auriemma said. "We get them to do it better than anybody else has done it ever, and those kids are entitled to the kind of success that they have, and people should appreciate what they do. Plain and simple."
That shouldn't be hard to understand. So stop making excuses.