For the first time since 2006, the UConn women's basketball team is not a top seed in the NCAA tournament. The disappointment of being placed next to the number 2 in the category is the latest in a series for the Huskies, who have failed to qualify for the national championship the past two seasons. Next year could be even worse: UConn loses its two best players at the time of graduation and will no longer appeal to any rookie.
In 2016, when an invincible UConn team won its fourth consecutive national title, who could have predicted this fall of dominance? (Uh … me.) The 2016 team, led by Breanna Stewart, included the most successful graduating class in the history of the NCAA. Stewart's teams won every March Madness match of 10 points or more and went beyond the previous two years of UConn domination: one led by Diana Taurasi in the early 2000s and the other by Maya Moore at the end of the season. decade. As I wrote in 2016:
The question is whether the immediate future of UConn will be more like the post-Taurasi era, with its few years of non-contention, or the post-Moore era, with its relatively rapid return to greatness. For the moment, we can think that the post-Stewart era could be something in between, featuring teams that face each other but are far from the dominant teams that people are waiting to see. 'UConn.
That's exactly what happened. If the ball had rebounded differently in two games in overtime, UConn could continue its seventh consecutive national title. Instead, he enters this year's tournament with a dry title and an unknown seed.
Before exploring what's happening with UConn, let's take a moment to discuss its boot. The Huskies have only lost twice this season and finished the year in second place in the main polls. But their number 2 is reasonable given how the selection committee evaluates the teams. He places great value on a team's victories against high-ranking opponents and this approach favors schools at power conferences. UConn plays in the American Athletic Conference, where he is 120-0, but does not play the elite competition. Even though UConn defeated Notre Dame convincingly this year on the road and suffered a loss less than the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame still received a seed. And the decision makes sense because of the more hectic schedule of Our Lady. UConn, whose two losses were on the No. 1 seeds road Baylor and Louisville, had few major victories. Since the Huskies are not as good as they have been in the last two seasons, and even less so than in Stewart's four-track race, the committee could not look beyond their weak list of opponents.
So what has happened since 2016? If you do not follow women's basketball closely, UConn seems to have been invincible forever. But this is not true. The Huskies won three consecutive national titles from 2002 to 2004, but after graduation from Taurasi, the school missed the Final Four for the next three seasons. Then the big Moore arrived. UConn rose to 150-4. After graduating in 2011, there was only one year left in Stewart to start an even more dominant race.
Since graduation from Stewart, there has been no other star of this magnitude to fill the void. UConn was led by Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, two seniors who are excellent players but are not among the greatest of all time. In many ways, they have been overwhelmed, they have been unbeaten to the Final Four in 2017 and 2018 without losing a match without an extension until this year. These accomplishments are staggering, but Stewart and his predecessors have set the bar so high that only national championships seem to be among UConn's success stories.
The failure to win one since Stewart's departure exceeds the current leaders of the team. Last year, UConn had the complementary talents it needed to win the title, but a specific wrong turn derailed them. This is where I will do the unthinkable and criticize UConn coach Geno Auriemma, perhaps the greatest coach in basketball history, all American sport regularly televised. Even Geno is human, and nothing is more humane than a person who succeeds massively and who believes too much in himself. Perhaps the methods that led to its success began to look like infallible rules that would always produce convincing results. In particular, consider how Geno allows its star players to realize their potential. When an elite rookie goes to a school other than UConn, she often scores prolifically as a rookie. At UConn, however, rookies often have disappointing first years before turning into superstars. Geno achieves this by under-using the player in the first year and strongly criticizing his game. This can give an unpleasant and unproductive time, but the plan pays off when the player learns to accept becoming a coach and let Geno shape his game It's a formula that has worked over and over again – for Taurasi, Collier, Moriah Jefferson, Tina Charles and even Stewart.
Last season, Geno applied the formula to a situation where it made no sense. Unlike most of her players, who come to UConn after high school and have to stay four years before being recruited by the WNBA, Azurá Stevens has been transferred from Duke to UConn. He had two years of eligibility and the opportunity to become a professional after his first year. Geno treated her like her other first-year players. He did not give Stevens the minutes justified by his play. Many observers, including this one, thought that she was the best player of the team last year and could have been the best player in the country this year. But UConn lost to Notre Dame in the Final Four as Stevens sat on the bench for 17 minutes, while the less talented seniors (half a foot shorter) played the whole game or so. And then Stevens left for the pros. Perhaps she realized that last year's project was weaker than this year's. Or maybe she left because she did not like her lack of playing time. Geno put her on the bench because he had too much faith in his system or because he was too loyal to his elders, it is possible that his choice cost UConn $ 20,000. and National titles 2019.
The team took another shot when Andra Espinoza-Hunter was transferred to the state of Mississippi – a team that, unlike UConn, ranks first in seeded this year. In a video now deleted, Auriemma said the following about Espinoza-Hunter's departure: "She's gone, because I did not want her there anymore. It had nothing to do with the fact that she did not like it here, did not integrate or play it. I did not want to see her here anymore. We have a simple rule in Connecticut. That's what I want you to do. If you do not do it, I'll remind you again … until I remember it again, and you're not there anymore. It is possible that her transfer was the best move for her and the program, but it also seems possible that her decision was influenced by the hybris.
Without these two players, the margin of error of the others is reduced. It is normal for UConn's high-profile recruits – Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (5) – to have gone through dark seasons. But what is worrying is that the elite high school students have not matured as expected. Megan Walker, the first rookie of the 2017 promotion, has not exceeded expectations as a sophomore. His second student Mikayla Coombs has barely played. Even Crystal Dangerfield, No. 3 rookie of 2016, has only become a good player in three years at UConn. Player development is the key to UConn's greatness, and Geno has not managed to get out of this group as much as usual.
Yet despite all this, in less than three weeks, UConn may well reduce the net in Tampa as a national champion. Even in his last years, the program remains a competitor. They are probably among the top five, with Baylor, Notre Dame, Louisville and the state of Mississippi. But it will be difficult for the Huskies to win everything – I would put their odds at a maximum of 20%. (FiveThirtyEight sees things the same way.)
Next season will test the Huskies further. For the first time in five years, the school failed to bring in a star rookie. The top three players in the class all rejected the Huskies; Aubrey Griffin, ranked 33rd nationally, is UConn's only newcomer. UConn will also lose Samuelson and Collier, his two best players. The worst scenario for UConn is that the struggles of Walker and Coombs show that the school can no longer develop its players at the same level and that Geno never wins another title. The best-case scenario is that UConn wins the title this year, as his underachieving elite rookies take full advantage of his minutes next season and start a new round. Then come the bustling recruitment classes of 2020 and 2021, with players like Paige Bueckers, Amari DeBerry and especially Azzi Fudd. If Geno recruits one or all of these players and develops them, he could return to the dominance of UConn and his legendary coach.
Either of these scenarios is realistic, so I'll split the difference and guess that UConn will not win the title this year and will not reach the high standards while still being a dangerous tournament team to which no one wants to face. Shortly after, players like Williams will reach their potential and more elite recruits will step through the door and UConn will return to the top of its game. Give it two or three years and most fans will have forgotten that Geno Auriemma's Huskies have never fallen out of their seats.