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The UConn Women’s Basketball Dynasty is Over. But Don’t Count the Huskies Out Yet

When the Associated Press released its women’s college basketball rankings earlier this week, the top 10 was comprised of a familiar crowd: No 1 South Carolina, No 5 Texas, No 9 Stanford. Much further down, in 17th place, was Connecticut. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

The last time the Huskies were this far down in the rankings Bill Clinton was ratifying Nafta, Princess Di was withdrawing from public life and Schindler’s List was on its way to sweeping the Oscars. By dropping to 17th in the AP poll, UConn snapped a 357-week stretch of being ranked in the top 15 – a streak that trails only Tennessee’s 428 straight appearances. This comes five weeks after UConn opened the season behind top-ranked LSU. Back then the idea of setting the most successful women’s basketball program in history on a collision course with the defending national champion hardly seemed far-fetched.

What happened? The basketball gods don’t give with both hands, that’s what. Not long after the team welcomed back 2021 player of the year Paige Bueckers, sidelined for much of the past two years with significant knee injuries, guard Azzi Fudd went down with a season-ending ACL injury – and that brought the total of Huskies on injured reserve since the summer to four. Without those key contributors, Connecticut staggered to a 4-3 start. That all of those defeats have come against ranked teams that are now all in the top five would hardly come as consolation to a program that hadn’t lost three games this early in a season since 1980.

It’s enough to make you think the unthinkable: that the Huskies could soon find themselves out of the AP poll altogether. “I think they were all anticipating that this year was going to be different,” coach Geno Auriemma told beat reporters this week, “that this year all that was going away and that was all behind us. And the response, I think, has been like a real punch in the gut. Like, ‘I’ve got to do this again.’ Me seeing that and me seeing their frustration, and them seeing mine, I think it’s inevitable. You can’t hide it.”

Connecticut aren’t supposed to have down years. In the three decades Auriemma has patrolled the sidelines, the Huskies have set an impossibly high standard with 11 national championships – six of them earned in undefeated seasons. They once, not that long ago, won 111 games in a row. They hoard the finest players, feature in the most-watched games, and compete for the highest stakes. They are the program against which all others measure themselves. Their reign atop women’s basketball is unlike any other in American sport. Only the New England Patriots’ 20-year dynasty comes close.

The Huskies don’t rebuild; they reload. They graduate one generational player in Diana Taurasi and gain perhaps an even better one in Maya Moore. They change with the times, going from grinding out half-court possessions with Rebecca Lobo in the ’90s to running and gunning with Breanna Stewart in the 2010s. They have a basketball culture that rivals that of the Miami Heat and a mystique about them that chastens some opponents before they even take the court. So dominant, so inevitable were the Huskies not long ago that some critics deemed them bad for women’s basketball.

The only threat to UConn’s success, it seemed, was the 69-year-old Auriemma announcing his retirement. That’s how the run ended for UConn’s great rival Tennessee, after all. From the mid-80s through the early-2000s, the Lady Vols were a powerhouse under coach Pat Summitt, winning eight championships. But after she stepped down in 2012, the program regressed to the mean of the SEC. That opened the door for new challengers to jump to the fore – not least South Carolina and LSU, who are coached by two of the game’s best in Dawn Staley and Kim Mulkey, respectively.

In general, many of the former players and assistants Auriemma schemed against are now leading major college programs, and the high school talent pool is deeper than ever. Connecticut is as much a victim of bad luck as it is a victim of its own success. Colorado, Virginia Tech and Utah are three teams that would’ve struggled to crack the AP poll a decade ago. It’s a testament to the growth of women’s basketball that the college game has caught up with Connecticut in much the same way the soccer world caught up with the US women’s national team.

Still: as tempting as it is to take the bait and look ahead to the next UConn season, I’ve seen this movie before. In 2008 the Huskies were ostensibly in rebuild mode when they snuck into the Final Four with a roster led by Moore, a freshman, and sophomore Tina Charles. After falling to Stanford in the regional final, they wouldn’t lose another game for the next two years.

Sure, the Huskies’ current lot looks bleak. Nika Mühl, a playmaking guard from Croatia, has known nothing but struggle during her four years on campus. “I feel like that’s the only cards we’ve been dealt since I’ve been here,” she told reporters. But there’s still a lot of season left to play for her Huskies. Even at their worst without Bueckers, they still won 61 games – and she has the potential to be as much of a force for UConn as Caitlin Clark is for Iowa.

All of which is to say: These dogs may be down, but count them out at your own peril.

Source: The Guardian