On Monday night, in front of a sell-out crowd in Gampel Pavilion, the UConn women defeated #4 Louisville, 69-58. UConn humiliated the Cardinals in the first quarter, blowing open a 24-6 lead before playing the end of the game as a formality.
By now, in coach Geno Auriemma’s fourth decade at the helm, UConn fans have grown accustomed to games like this. Since taking over the program in 1985, Auriemma has now defeated 121* (!!) top-10 opponents, including six this season alone. This is his tenth team to start the season 25-0.
That sustained excellence has dulled some of excitement over the years. Certainly a win over a top team now feels a lot different than it did in 1995. Many of us are guilty of using that as an excuse to half pay attention. Here at A Dime Back, our intentions of covering the day-to-day progress of the program ended after about two weeks when we realized we’d have to pen the same article over and over again: “UConn is really good and beat the opponent over the head with a metaphorical basketball sledgehammer.” Since then, we’ve watched — and written — in occasional amazement as we focused most of our attention on the men’s team.
This season, however, is different. With Kevin Ollie’s men’s squad virtually unwatchable (again) and wholly uninteresting (again), the UConn women have taken the reigns as the most important Husky team, and they haven’t disappointed. In almost every aspect where the men have failed, the women have thrived.
They are led by a Hall of Fame coach who speaks openly and honestly, devoid of insane shipwreck metaphors. His team is meticulously prepared for each game, perfectly evidenced by its dominant opening quarter against Louisville.
They play at a breakneck pace, marked by frenetic defense and constant fast breaks. The team is scoring over 90 points per game, the most in the nation.
The basketball itself is near flawless. Five of the Huskies’ seven rotation players are shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. Katie Lou Samuelson (47.6%) is second in the nation in three-point percentage. Kia Nurse (47.3%) is fourth. No one commits fouls (sixth fewest in the nation as a team). They have the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country. And, my god, watch them pass the ball.
Say no more fam pic.twitter.com/fS9FZd6PJD
— Storrs South (@UConn6thBorough) February 11, 2018
That is objectively beautiful.
The roster is packed with stars. Samuelson is a tough-as-nails three-point specialist (who will post pictures of her black eyes on Instagram). Nurse may be the best on-ball defender in the country and stills scores nearly 15 points per game. Napheesa Collier and Azura Stevens are unguardable in the low post and can each step outside to bury a long jumper or take someone off the dribble. Crystal Dangerfield, the diminutive point guard is setting the stage for an inevitable National Player of the Year campaign in 2020. Meghan Walker, the number one recruit in the country, has shown flashes of tantalizing brilliance. And then there’s Gabby Williams.
Williams is one of the more unique athletes in UConn history. Though undersized, she is the team’s best rebounder thanks to her superhuman leaping ability. Though she’s essentially playing the power forward position, she’s also the team’s best passer. On any given possession she switches from Charles Barkley to Magic Johnson. It is outrageously fun to watch. She currently leads the team in rebounds, assists and steals while scoring in double-figures.
The team is also engaged and accessible. Unlike the men’s team, which has been nearly invisible during Ollie’s tenure, the women post silly videos to instagram. They hang out with good dogs. They let the fans into their world instead of going out of their way to shut fans out of it. The team even does regular documentary-style programs for SNY that are insightful, impactful and enthralling. The Geno Auriemma Show is appointment viewing.
The schedule (especially the home schedule) is packed with interesting top-tier opponents — a necessity to combat the grotesque quality of play offered by the other AAC teams.
And, most importantly, they win. When the men’s team was piling up 20+ victories per year in the best basketball conference in the universe, it was convenient to overlook the superior play of the women. That Auriemma’s teams typically bludgeoned their opponent, putting the game far out of reach early, added to the malaise. Those teams were always fundamentally sound, and typically had at least one transcendent talent, but it was almost always more entertaining to watch the men play a close game against Marquette than the women beat Providence by 78 (this actually happened).
Now that only one UConn basketball team is capable of winning the majority of its games, however, it’s undeniable that the women are much more fun to watch. The final scores are still lopsided (only two of the team’s 25 games have been won by single-digits), but the talent level in the women’s game is clearly rising. Any of the top ten teams in the country are capable of winning the title — if you rolled your eyes at that, go back and watch UConn vs. Mississippi State last year. The heightened level of competition seems to be aiding the resurgent interest in UConn. The thrill of a potential defeat is now present (at least modestly) in many of its games (unless they’re conference games).
The attendance numbers bear this out. For the first time since the 2008-09 season, the women are on pace to average over 10,000 fans per game. Since the 2004 season, the likely peak of UConn athletics as a whole, ticket sales had been steadily sinking. By the time the Big East collapsed and the Huskies found themselves stuck in the AAC, the women had seen their average attendance drop by over 5,000 fans per game, bottoming out in 2015 (the third of the Huskies’ four consecutive championship seasons) at 8,216.
It’s up for debate how much of this season’s resurgent interest in the women’s team is based on waning interest in the men’s. But it’s undeniable which team is rewarding UConn fans with a better basketball experience this year.
* Subject to me counting correctly