Monday night’s national championship game between North Carolina and Villanova was certainly thrilling, but it wasn’t the final NCAA Division I basketball game of the season — that game will be played between the University of Connecticut Huskies and the Syracuse Orange women’s teams on Tuesday night in Indianapolis.
The UConn women, led by legendary coach Geno Auriemma, are going for a historic fourth straight national championship title. On the heels of a Cinderella-esque run and a three-point shooting night for the ages, Syracuse will do their best to stop the heavy favorites.
But, if you listen to certain members of the media, there’s no reason to watch. In fact, last week, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy tweeted that UConn’s dominance was “killing” the women’s game.
UConn Women beat Miss St. 98-38 in NCAA tourney. Hate to punish them for being great, but they are killing women's game. Watch? No thanks
— Dan Shaughnessy (@Dan_Shaughnessy) March 26, 2016
Shaughnessy’s tweet became the women’s college basketball topic-du-jour during the most high-profile week in the sport. The question — is UConn’s unprecedented dominance bad for women’s basketball? — has been discussed ad nauseum, on sports talk shows and podcasts, radio shows, and internet forums.
Let’s get this out of the way: The greatness of the Huskies isn’t bad for women’s basketball. But the fact that people have become so enamored with the no-nuance, yes-or-no, innately dismissive question, certainly is.
Throughout sports history, greatness has always been revered, even deified — at least when men are the athletes in question. Roger Federer steamrolled opponents in finals for years; the only result was that he became an icon who took tennis to new financial and competitive heights. Tiger Woods was nearly automatic for a span, and golf exploded in popularity. We marvel at excellence because it’s so rare, because sports is so filled with stories of untapped potential, of letdowns, of injuries derailing promising careers, that being privileged enough to able to watch all-time greats in their prime feels like catching lightning in a bottle.
Yes, UConn has been a women’s college basketball powerhouse for decades, but even the Huskies have never had a stretch this remarkable. It deserves to be appreciated.
If you listen to Shaughnessy and don’t tune into the game on Tuesday night, you’ll miss watching Breanna Stewart, arguably the greatest woman’s college basketball player in history, finish her career, possibly with a fourth-straight title. You’ll miss watching her play in perfect harmony with her fellow senior superstars, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. You’ll miss watching Auriemma, one of the best coaches of any sport, period, win an 11th national championship title — something no one in college basketball history, men’s or women’s, has done.
Additionally, the Huskies are going for their 75th victory in a row. Dominance is one thing. But consistency like that is almost incomprehensible. For some, UConn’s success is so hard to grasp that it’s easier just to dismiss it all.
“They sign up for the championship like you sign up for gym class,” Shaughnessy said, doubling down on his controversial remarks. “They just say ‘OK, we’re here this year. Hand over the trophy.’”
That statement might be more offensive than his original comment. It discounts the hard work that the players put in on a daily basis. It ignores how many times they’ve likely fought through bad days, mentally and physically, to pull out a win. It disregards how incredibly difficult it must be to keep the intensity and focus against inferior opponents, to ignore the inevitable letdown games.
And it insults the other teams, may of them filled with talented recruits as well, who become more determined to knock UConn off the pedestal with each passing victory.
Which is another reason why it’s worth tuning into UConn games — because at some point, their winning streak will end, and that’s going to be an all-time sports moment.
While UConn has hogged all of the glory in recent years, there are plenty of other phenomenal stories in women’s basketball. This year, three teams made their first ever trips to the Final Four: Washington, Oregon State, and Syracuse.
Of course this run from UConn will make women’s college basketball better.
“Every year at media day he says the same thing and we believe the same thing that we’re going to win the national championship and we’re going to compete for the national championship,” Syracuse guard Brittney Sykes said. “We’re doing that right now. Whether it took us two years, three years, four years, we’re here, so we’re here in this moment. We’re living in this moment. Tuesday, we’ll be competing for what he’s been saying all his years here.”
Sure, it’s going to take an other-worldly performance to get the titanic upset on Tuesday, but Syracuse’s run was not a fluke — their three-point shooting alone will have Auriemma & Co. paying attention.
Discounting all of women’s basketball just because UConn has been historically dominant over the past few years is lazy, sexist, and just plain ill-advised. It oversimplifies and slights the incredible hard work it takes to achieve UConn’s success, disrespects the great stories and talent elsewhere in the sports, and keeps nuanced conversations about how women’s basketball can keep growing at bay.
Of course this run from UConn will make women’s college basketball better. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of young girls practicing harder because they want to be like Stewie or Moriah when they grow up. A fraction of those girls will grow up and be recruited by colleges all over the nation. Auriemma won’t have roster spots for all of them.
Parity will return to the top of the sport, and when it does, it will be higher quality than ever. The ones who don’t recognize that are simply looking for excuses not to tune in.