UConn, Their Critics, And The Importance Of Awe

UConn's women's basketball dynasty caught a good amount of very bad criticism for their dominance during their latest dominant run to a NCAA championship. Which is weird, because the only thing you need to do to appreciate and understand their greatness is watch them play.
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Tipoff

Starting lineups are hollered out in the middle of  a lightshow. First the players, then the coaches; Syracuse, then UConn. Syracuse is going for the greatest upset of all time, because UConn is shooting for history. The self-appointed critics of the greatest women’s college basketball team in history are, very pointedly, not watching. They’re stewing, instead.

It has now been a week-and-a-half since Dan Shaughnessy, the Boston Globe’s curly-headed umbrage specialist, first saw a shovel and decided that what he really needed to do was dig down three feet. He flippantly tweeted about the UConn Women’s Basketball team simply being too good for the good of the game they play.

As the game tips, UConn is 37-0, winners of 71 straight overall, 141 of its last 142 games, with an average margin of victory hovering around 40 points. The Huskies are competing for its fourth straight national championship; Breanna Stewart, its best player, is a three-time most outstanding player of the year going for an unprecedented fourth straight national title. Geno Auriemma, the team’s foul-mouthed coach, could win his 11th title, tying Phil Jackson’s coaching record. Simply put, UConn is as dominant a team as there has ever been in college basketball.

UConn gets on the board first then spends ten predictable minutes executing Syracuse relentlessly. The first quarter ends 28-13. Stewart finishes with 10 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks.  

Second Quarter

In the 1960s and ’70s, UCLA won seven straight national championships. It is a program that remains one of the most venerated in American “amateur” athletic history. It featured a player— then Lew Alcindor, eventually Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—so dominant that the slam-dunk was banned in an attempt to slow him down, a rule change that now looks as ludicrous as raising the basket. UConn’s fourth national championship would not be the UCLA’s equal, but it would be as close as any team has come in the modern era.

Shaughnessy’s three-foot hole had a problem and he knew immediately what it was: depth.  So he got back to work, publishing a column several days later attempting to further extrapolate on his absolute certainty that UConn is bad for the game. Not because of the players, or how they play, or who they are, but simply because they are too good. UConn is a team without equal, he insisted, and that was the problem, and everything wrong with the team’s dream storyline.

UConn slowed down in the second quarter, leading 50-23 at halftime. Stewart quietly got another four points, two rebounds, and two assists.

Halftime

A more exasperated person might have stared at Shaughnessy’s column and wondered what, exactly, UConn was supposed to do. The most dominant teams and the most dominant athletes have never been expected to slow down for their competition and have never been asked to, even implicitly. What was happening here, with Shaughnessy and with other dismissive critics, was something far more insidious, and although nobody explicitly said so. The sneaking suspicion was that UConn was getting called out for gendered reasons—their gender, but also the tendency of a certain type of male commentator to default to criticism where women’s sports is concerned.

Sue Bird went on Zach Lowe’s podcast and was outwardly flabbergasted at the idea that anybody could object to what the Huskies were doing. Diana Taurasi echoed Bird’s sentiments on Bill Simmons’ podcast. Auriemma told those that objected to what UConn was doing that they were welcome to change the channel. Nobody apologized for the team’s dominance. Nobody should have.

Third Quarter

It is worth noting that UConn’s dominant first half was not simply a matter of Stewart’s play, although it is perhaps worth noting that three minutes into the third quarter she had 16 points, six rebounds, and six assists. As a team, from the transcendent Stewart on down, the Huskies consume their opposition. Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson were both in double-figures; both will be high WNBA picks. Kia Nurse had another nine. A few minutes into the third quarter, the team had 16 assists to Syracuse’s one, plus a 13-rebound advantage.

It is difficult to find a team to compare to UConn. UCLA is the obvious one, thanks to that dynastic seven-year span and multiple undefeated seasons; the next target for UConn’s program is UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak. But, in context, even that may not be enough. It’s useful, maybe, to look elsewhere. Cricket’s Don Bradman has been rightly described as twice the player of his next closest competition; Bob Beamon so thoroughly dominated the long jump that it took twenty-plus years for anybody to beat his record. Secretariat sealed his Triple-Crown by running so hard that the cameraman could not get the race’s second-place horse into the shot.

In the third quarter, Syracuse ripped off a 16-0 run, cutting the lead at one point down to (um) 17 points; at the end of the third quarter, the deficit was 21. Stewart had 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists.

Fourth Quarter

Within a minute-and-a-half, Stewart had her double-double; she would finish with 24/10/6. UConn maintained its 21-point lead, then stretched it as the Orange ran out of gas. The game’s fourth quarter feels like a formality, because of course it does.

Beyond the refusal of UConn’s critics to specify what exactly the Huskies were supposed to do to return an allegedly desired balance to the game, besides lose. It is unclear when this balance even existed, as Auriemma and the retired Pat Summit had 18 of the game’s last 29 championships between them, only occasionally allowing other competitive teams to emerge. There was no attempt made to explain why the Huskies owe it to the game to compete less. It’s probably giving Shaughnessy and his cohorts too much credit to presume that there is even an argument beyond the initial round of carping.

And then, not surprisingly, there is also the occasional admission that women’s basketball is barely worth the critic’s time to begin with. In his attempt to explain himself, Shaughnessy generously noted that he only tuned into a UConn game because he wanted the “white noise” of it in the background while he focused on other activities. Taurasi’s interview with Simmons was almost as ridiculous; when she pressed Simmons, who used to have an active sideline in shitting on the WNBA, to name the Final Four’s other three teams, he couldn’t name a single one of them, then blamed it on preparing for Wrestlemania. It seems that UConn is bad for a game that its critics are not watching anyway.

With two minutes left, Stewart and Jefferson and Tuck are substituted out with hugs and smiles and celebrations and with thirty seconds left, the team’s fourth senior, Briana Pulido (a walk-on), drains a baseline jumper and her teammates go bananas. Thirty seconds after that and the game is over; UConn wins 81-52, undefeated this season, winners of four straight national championships, winners of 72 straight, winners of 142 of their last 143. The players celebrated like players do, jumping, screaming, even occasionally pausing to reflect in the moment.

We can assume that their critics, wherever they were and whatever other thing they were watching, just rolled their eyes. Of course the Huskies had won, of course they had dominated. Without the appropriate awe in them, those words are meant as a complaint. But without the appropriate awe, they’re nonsense.


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