Look at the bright side. There are more than 340 Division I teams that haven’t beaten UConn by double digits this season. Geno Auriemma made it clear after South Carolina’s convincing win against the Huskies this week that he feels people need to stop holding his team to impossible standards. But the 70-52 loss against the top-ranked Gamecocks was UConn’s third this season by double digits — as many as the Huskies suffered in the preceding decade.
Auriemma said it’s not complicated — other teams are allowed to outplay UConn once in a while. But after losses to South Carolina, Baylor and Oregon, are we allowed to wonder when “once in a while” becomes a trend?
ESPN.com reporters Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays and Charlie Creme address some of the hottest topics in women’s college basketball this week.
At 20-3, do the Huskies really need to be worried? What should we make of Geno Auriemma’s postgame comments Monday? And what are the key things that UConn needs to work on over the next month before the NCAA tournament?
Mechelle Voepel: Here’s the thing: UConn fans, for the most part, support Geno Auriemma 100 percent. Why wouldn’t they, with 11 NCAA titles and all he has done for the university? But there is the peanut gallery for every fan base, and those folks will always see the sky falling. Sometimes they get on Auriemma’s nerves. But there are also women’s basketball fans who are not crackpots and have some thoughtful criticism of things Auriemma says. When he referred to his players as “dummies” after the Baylor loss, that upset some observers. After the South Carolina loss, he said, “We’re allowed to lose a god damn game once in a while where the other team plays better than us.” That bothered some folks, too. I was in both of those postgame news conferences and honestly didn’t even blink at either comment, because it’s “Geno being Geno,” the same as the past 25-plus years.
Is that the wrong approach? The media basically expect his sarcastic critiques of players and little outbursts of frustration at times, and usually hear all that in the context of everything else he says, which is insightful and actually supportive and positive. I’ve always thought his news conferences are kind of therapeutic for him: a way to vent a little, crack some jokes and try to shape the narrative about his team. Sometimes he’s trying to take pressure away from the players and put it on himself. And sometimes it almost seems like he’s thinking out loud a bit about what he knows he’ll need to do in practice to change some elements of the Huskies’ play. We in the media have been critical of some things he has said over the years, but we’ve also heard the tone of his voice or seen his facial expression and know he’s not speaking in the harsh way it might sound without any of that context. That answer is not going to satisfy everyone, I know. And, especially in today’s social media culture of countless daily “outrages” over all kinds of comments, Auriemma might one day go too far, even after all these years. It’s a complicated topic: We don’t want coaches who spew robotic clichés, yet those who really speak their minds can get criticized. I think in the end, Geno is going to keep being Geno.
As for his team, these Huskies don’t have the swagger of past teams. UConn has been through this a few times before. The 2005, ’06 and ’07 teams, for instance, didn’t reach the Final Four. They were good teams, just not great ones. The Huskies have time over the next month to build their confidence and work on some of the basic things that they’ve been doing wrong. Much of that is fundamental stuff on offense — make your cuts, get to the line, hit the free throws, take advantage of open shots — that we’re so used to seeing the Huskies do automatically, it looks odd when they struggle with it like many teams do at times.
Crystal Dangerfield and UConn have lost three times this season — on the road at No. 1 South Carolina and at home against No. 2 Baylor and No. 3 Oregon. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Graham Hays: Maybe it speaks to the growth of the sport over the past decade, but a whole lot of people either don’t remember or seem to want to pretend that the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons never happened. Remember UConn as the No. 3 seed that lost in the Sweet 16 or the No. 2 seed that lost in its own backyard in a regional final? We’ve been here before.
The Huskies have already signed this season’s top-ranked high school player in Paige Bueckers and might well do the same for the class after that. Geno Auriemma hasn’t dropped any hints that he’s walking away. And a handful of high-profile losses aside, the Huskies still rank among the national leaders in scoring margin, field goal offense and any number of things that suggest his brand of basketball still works just fine. As a program, UConn is just fine.
Like those teams a little over a decade ago that came between the end of the Diana Taurasi era and the arrival of Tina Charles and then Maya Moore, this particular UConn team is slightly flawed. Slightly flawed in the same way as Stanford, Maryland, Louisville and several other teams that are good enough to win it all in a year of parity — but which won’t enter the postseason as the favorites behind the likes of Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina.
I’m not sure how much better this team, or any team, can get in the span of a few weeks. But it might need only to play better for 40 minutes in a regional final, to hit a few 3s or avoid a few turnovers, to make it back to the Final Four. And if the Huskies are in New Orleans, what are we really talking about?
Before Championship Week arrives, what remaining regular-season games should we be paying the most attention to? Which ones have the biggest impact on the national landscape?Michaela Onyenwere and UCLA are projected as a No. 2 seed in Charlie Creme’s latest Bracketology. Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire
Charlie Creme: It feels like we could say this every week, but most of those games reside in the Pac-12. UCLA hosts Oregon on Friday and Oregon State on Big Monday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App). If the Bruins sweep, they’re in position for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. If they split, the Bruins will remain in the conversation, adding another top-25 RPI win. Oregon’s spot on the top line is secure, so the Ducks could afford a loss on Friday night as far as tournament positioning goes. Winning the Pac-12 will come down to this weekend and when Oregon visits Stanford on Feb. 24 (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App).
Sunday’s game at Kentucky is key for Mississippi State. It’s the best opponent the Bulldogs have left on their schedule, and with the right combination of losses by the teams in front of them — such as UCLA, Stanford and Louisville — winning out in the regular season could give Mississippi State a chance at that final No. 1 seed.
Missouri State at Bradley on March 1 is one game that might be under the radar. Bradley would go a long way toward securing an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament with a win and put itself in position to at least share part of the Missouri Valley Conference title. The Bears are securely in the field but are still in position to challenge for a top-four seed and hosting privileges for first- and second-round NCAA tournament games by winning out over the rest of the regular season and the conference tournament.
Hays: I’m most interested in the teams vying to host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, especially the teams in Bracketology that Charlie currently has on the wrong side of that line as No. 5 seeds: Florida State, Texas A&M, Indiana and Missouri State. Specifically, it’s interesting how few opportunities those teams have before Championship Week. Indiana doesn’t have any more games against the Big Ten teams ahead of it. Other than this weekend’s trip to Duke, Florida State doesn’t have much left to help its cause.
The exception could be Texas A&M, but both of its opportunities to make a splash — Sunday at Tennessee and March 1 at South Carolina — are on the road. With so much unknown about Chennedy Carter’s status, what will the final weeks mean for the Aggies?
South Carolina is No. 1, Oregon has Sabrina Ionescu. Meanwhile, Baylor is quietly and consistently dominating the Big 12. Other than Lauren Cox, what player or players have been most impressive for the Lady Bears?Te’a Cooper and Baylor have won 15 consecutive games since their only loss of the season — in a game played without senior star Lauren Cox — against South Carolina in late November in the U.S. Virgin Islands. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Creme: I wasn’t sure if Te’a Cooper would fit in as well as Chloe Jackson ultimately did a season ago, but she has been just the right fit. Cooper is the Lady Bears’ second-leading scorer at 13.9 points per game and is averaging 4.7 assists. (Remarkably, DiDi Richards is averaging 5.6 assists per game and Baylor leads the country in that category.) Cooper is also shooting 41.3% from 3-point range.
Voepel: One thing that makes Baylor so interesting is it’s hard to think of very many times in NCAA history in which a top team’s best player is its fourth-leading scorer, as Cox is at 11.8 PPG. When that has been the case, it’s usually a point guard who’s a great facilitator. But with Baylor, it’s a 6-foot-4 forward in Cox — always a defensive stalwart — doing so many things besides scoring to facilitate Baylor’s offense. That has helped other players to flourish. And when Cox was out for eight games with a foot injury, the rest of the Lady Bears got better at carrying bigger loads, too. In particular, sophomore forwards NaLyssa Smith, who leads Baylor in scoring at 14.7 PPG, and Queen Egbo (12.0) have been key this season. Combined, they average more than 15 rebounds per game.
Credit also goes to the guard corps. As Charlie said, Cooper has fit in very well in her one season at Baylor. Fellow senior Juicy Landrum leads Baylor in 3-pointers with 47. Richards is like the adjustable wrench that is one of the most valuable tools in the box: She’s the best perimeter defender and leads Baylor in assists and steals.
Hays: I’m with Mechelle in wondering if the story really is: Do people fully appreciate how valuable a player averaging not quite 12 points per game can be? The list would probably have a lot of point guards and a few shot-blockers, but how many players have ever been more valuable averaging what Cox does in the scoring department?
Beyond Cox, I’ll make it unanimous on Cooper. It’s one thing for a program to bring in a player as sort of a mercenary scorer, but Cooper is providing points while fitting in rather seamlessly with the way Baylor wants to play collectively. To be able to get that kind of fit two years in a row, first with Jackson and now with Cooper in her third stop, is yet more proof that Kim Mulkey is about as good at this job as anyone past or present.
Which bubble team has the best chance of making noise in March?
Voepel: Duke missed the NCAA tournament last year and appeared on the way to doing that again this season. But the Blue Devils have won seven of their past nine games and are now 14-10 overall. They still have two regular-season games against ranked teams: vs. No. 14 Florida State on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) and at No. 4 NC State on Feb. 24 (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App). And they finish March 1 at archrival North Carolina. So it’s a tough road to make the NCAA field, but Duke has the ability — especially with players like Haley Gorecki and Leaonna Odom — to continue the good play we’ve seen the past couple of weeks.
Also, Western Kentucky has won eight of its past nine and has three of the top 10 scorers in Conference USA in Raneem Elgedawy, Dee Givens and Whitney Creech. Two of the Lady Toppers’ three C-USA losses were to the top teams in the league — Rice and Old Dominion — and both of those games were on the road. If Western Kentucky makes the field, it could cause some problems for foes.
Hays: James Madison had a head-scratching 22-point loss against Drexel recently, a CAA rivalry that should never catch either team by surprise. That solidified Drexel’s hold on first place and the projected bid in Charlie’s Bracketology for the moment. But if they get in, the Dukes aren’t a double-digit seed I’d want to draw in the NCAA tournament. They’ve got enough 3-point shooting to get uncomfortably hot on any given day, a fearless go-to option in Kamiah Smalls and a shot-blocking presence in Kayla Cooper-Williams. And as Maryland would attest, at least for the first three quarters of its narrow escape earlier this season, James Madison always defends.
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