Let’s make this clear: Connecticut is an overwhelming favorite to win a fifth straight NCAA women’s basketball championship. If you wanted to bet on it, a $10 wager would net you just $2 in profit. The rest of the field—the 344 other schools—is a 7/2 long shot.
Those odds seem reasonable given that the UConn program has been an unstoppable, headline-grabbing, show-stopping force that has won a record-setting 103 consecutive wins to date. Unless something drastic happens between now and the NCAA Tournament, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone filling out a bracket and not selecting Connecticut as the champion.
But what if Geno Auriemma is right and the 28-0 Huskies aren’t as great as everybody thinks? Could someone actually end UConn’s triple-digit winning streak and title pursuit?
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In its season opener, Connecticut won 78-76 at Florida State. UConn was down four at half—the only time this season they’ve trailed at the break—and survived a missed three at the buzzer. Florida State was without its then-injured starting guard Leticia Romero, who is second on the team in scoring and assists.
The Seminoles crashed the glass (16 offensive rebounds to UConn’s eight) and won the turnover battle (nine to 17), which helped them attempt 15 more shots than the Huskies. But they made just five of 19 from three.
“You can’t always count on things on the offensive end, but you can count on how hard you go to the boards and you can count on yourselves on the defensive end,” Florida State head coach Sue Semrau told Excelle Sports this week.
The Seminoles (25-5) are athletic and have improved defensively throughout the season. In a potential rematch with UConn during the NCAA Tournament, Florida will have Romero, which could make all the difference. “She’s so savvy with the ball in her hands,’ Semrau said. “She makes great decisions.”
At the end of December, UConn traveled to Maryland and won 87-81, the highest point total the Huskies have yielded this season. Maryland trailed by as many as 19 in the third quarter and 15 heading into the fourth, but cut it to five at the 4:40 mark. Like Florida State, the Terrapins worked the boards (19 offensive rebounds) but struggled from the outside (five of 20 from three).
After the game, Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said, “We are not afraid of the name on the jersey. I think that is three-fourths of the battle. I felt like our team was extremely confident going into this game.”
Frese makes an important point. The UConn mystique can’t be quantified, but it exists. Some teams are intimated before they even take the floor. That’s not the case for Maryland, whose senior stars, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones, have played UConn four times.
“We’re fortunate enough that we’ve played them enough that we feel like we’re right there,” Frese told Excelle Sports. “I don’t feel like we have a stretch where it takes us a while to play with them. From the tip, our kids know they can compete with them and have the ability to beat them.”
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At 90 points per game, Maryland (27-2) is the highest-scoring team in the country. Walker-Kimbrough and the 6-foot-3 Jones could each be top-10 picks in the 2017 WNBA draft. Their frenetic pace could get the Huskies, who rely heavily on their starters, in foul trouble.
Succeeding in that regard, though, does not necessarily guarantee a win. Tulane, on the strength of a second-half comeback, lost by just three, 63-60, on Feb. 18—the only other single-digit margin for UConn this season. Junior guard Kia Nurse was hurt and did not play and Gabby Williams battled foul trouble. The same scenario played out last Wednesday, and yet the Huskies beat then-No. 23 Temple 90-45. They routed Memphis on Saturday, again without Nurse, and close out the regular season this Monday at South Florida.
ESPN analyst Kara Lawson, who has called several of Connecticut’s high-profile games this season, say the Huskies have two potential areas to exploit: their lack of size and depth (in key games, Auriemma will often play just seven). But great UConn teams from the past haven’t always been deep, and the Huskies do a great job of defending without fouling, she adds.
Having talented post players hasn’t been enough to topple UConn yet this season, but it’s a good place to start. Lawson says the Huskies prefer to use a help defender in the paint. “Can you make plays out of that double team?” she asked. “Can you make them pay for bringing an extra defender?”
It's Monday, February 27th and the UConn women's basketball team hasn't lost in 832 days. pic.twitter.com/3xHYo2rsyb
— BarstoolStorrs (@BarstoolStorrs) February 27, 2017
There are plenty of game plans for how to beat UConn, but no opponent has been able to execute one that resulted in a win.
This season, Connecticut has already played and beaten most of the country’s current top teams: No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 4 Maryland, No. 5 South Carolina, No. 8 Florida State, No. 9 Ohio State, No. 12 Texas and No. 18 DePaul. The Huskies haven’t faced No. 6 Mississippi State or the top West Coast schools, including No. 6 Oregon State (tied with Mississippi), No. 10 Stanford or No. 11 Washington.
Lawson echoed what Frese said about the intimidation factor. “The more that you play (UConn), the more familiarity you have,” Lawson told Excelle. “That doesn’t mean with more familiarity they’re easier to beat. But it means they’re more real. They’re less like this mythical creature.”
Familiarity hasn’t helped teams in the American Athletic Conference. In what is perhaps the most impressive yet underappreciated UConn “streak” stat, the Huskies have not lost a conference game since joining the league in 2013–14. When this year’s NCAA Tournament rolls around, the team with the best chance may be the one with players who have not just played the Huskies, but beaten them.
Stanford’s Karlie Samuelson (older sister to Huskies standout Katie Lou), Briana Roberson, Kaylee Johnson and Erica McCall all played in the last game Connecticut lost—the Cardinal’s Nov. 17, 2014 defeat of UConn is the only reason the Huskies’ winning streak isn’t at 151 games. Baylor’s Alexis Prince is the only other active player who has beaten Connecticut.
— Stanford WBB (@StanfordWBB) February 27, 2017
So could Stanford (25-5) pull off the upset if given the chance? Stanford holds opponents to 34.8 percent from the field—11th best in the country—and is an above-average rebounding and three-point shooting team. The Cardinal has good size and will be battle-tested coming out of a competitive Pac-12.
When it comes to breaking down who can take down UConn, the Huskies’ unblemished record is the mic drop in any debate. And don’t forget that Connecticut will host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and play the regionals in Bridgeport, Conn. The Final Four is in Dallas, Texas.
With Nurse expected to return for the postseason and forward Napheesa Collier playing as efficiently as anyone in the country, UConn looks poised to make it to five straight championships.
The Huskies are certainly not going to beat themselves. Instead, an upset-targeted opponent will have to take care of the ball, shoot it well and force UConn into tough shots, Lawson says. “It’s hard for teams to put together a complete game like that,”she added
So with apologies to Auriemma, this Connecticut team is great. Perhaps not so talented that it should have a perfect record against such a difficult schedule, but it does. And despite the aforementioned close calls, there have been plenty of blowout victories. The Huskies might not be as good as they’ve been in recent years, but that might not matter.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to Excelle Sports. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn