An 18-point defeat to the No. 3 team in the country — the worst loss ever at Gampel Pavilion — and suddenly the sky is falling in Storrs.
But here’s the thing: It’s not.
First of all, Oregon is really, really good. As in, I would bet on them to win the national championship good. Sabrina Ionescu is the best player in the country, but the Ducks are way more than a single star.
Secondly, every team has off nights, and the Huskies certainly had one of those on Monday. Megan Walker won’t shoot 3-of-16 very often, and Christyn Williams is far better than her 2-of-9 would indicate. Some of those struggles have to be attributed to the Oregon defensive scheme, but UConn also missed countless shots that usually go down.
— Oregon Women’s Basketball (@OregonWBB) February 4, 2020
And thirdly, let’s just be honest: It’s a down year for UConn women’s basketball. We knew that coming into the year, with the losses of Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier and not much in the way of star potential of their caliber to replace them. We knew it after a couple of close games which usually aren’t so close, and we certainly knew it after the loss to Baylor.
Though they entered the Oregon game at No. 4 in the country, the Huskies probably aren’t one of the four best teams in the country. The name and the head coach carry a lot of weight, and perhaps the slightly-inflated national ranking contributed to the fanbase’s harsh reaction to the blowout to the Ducks. But if you’re been listening to what Geno and others around the program have been saying all season, expectations should be tempered.
“We can all be honest, they’re not as deep as typical UConn teams, maybe they’re not as talented as typical UConn teams,” Sue Bird said after the UConn-Team USA battle. “But you saw glimpses, and if they can find a way to make those glimpses even longer throughout a game … then you got a team you don’t want to see in the NCAA tournament.”
The current team would probably like a word about being less talented, but there’s no denying that, on paper at least, this UConn team has more weaknesses than past teams. Although these words rarely apply to UConn women’s hoops, it’s a rebuilding year.
But if this is what a rebuild looks like in Storrs — a top 10 team in the country with a legitimate, albeit unlikely, shot at a national title, we should be thankful. It’s a moment for UConn fans to step back and appreciate what Auriemma has created.
After the Oregon game, Ionescu had this to say in response to what a win over UConn, a longtime measuring stick for other programs, means to her team: “I think we should be the barometer.”
This year, she has a point. But there’s no doubt that UConn remains the national standard for excellence in not just women’s hoops, but in collegiate athletics as a whole. There’s a reason why an 18-point blowout over UConn is an immediate national headline. Ionescu’s head coach, likely pulling from a longer memory of women’s basketball than his senior guard, put the victory in perspective after the game.
“This is hallowed ground, so to speak,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. “They’ve been so good for so long, it means a great deal … This was one personally I’ll remember for a long time. I mean, who doesn’t look up to Geno? He’s an icon and a great coach, I think he’s the best coach in our business, so personally, that’s gratifying.”
As long as Auriemma is leading the program, there’s no need for long-term concern. This year probably won’t end with cutting down the nets, but just looking ahead to the next two recruiting classes, featuring some of the best high school athletes in the country, proves that the 2019-2020 season may very well be looked back as the lowest point (and that’s relative) in many years.
— UConn Women's Hoops (@UConnWBB) February 4, 2020
So yes, UConn hasn’t won a national championship since 2016 — and I mean, being frustrated about that sentence alone is absurd. But the worth and excellence of a program is more than just trophies — it’s the best fan base in the country, the unwavering national spotlight on a sport which rarely gets it, the synonymity of UConn and women’s basketball.
Here’s my advice for this year’s embattled UConn team: Do what the Patriots find a way to do every year, and embrace the underdog narrative. With so much recent success, the Patriots have no right to act like underdogs, but seemingly each year, they use whatever few doubts there are as fuel. UConn should do the same, by accepting that this isn’t the typical Geno team, and that it’s that very reason why this team will do what the last three teams could not.
“My kids are sick of answering questions about why we’re not what we used to be, why we don’t win like we used to, why things don’t look like they used to,” Auriemma said in January. “They are really kind of sick of listening to it. Sick of answering those questions.”
Turn that sickness into motivation.
As for the passionate fanbase, rather than linger on past successes, embrace what the Huskies are now: a good, but not unbeatable, presence in women’s basketball. Be grateful that a 19-2 season is a down year. UConn remains the program which every other — Oregon including — aspires to be, and that’s not changing anytime soon.