Tuesday, March 9, 2010

UCONN Women Win Record 71st Game In A Row

Its been a great run for this latest chapter of the UCONN Dynasty, but the time has come to try level the playing field in the Women's Big East Tournament


Last night I watched the University of Connecticut's women's basketball team do something extraordinary, an accomplishment that may never be broken- unless a future UCONN team is able to to set a new bench mark; they won their 71st consecutive game against Notre Dame 59-44 in The Big East Tournament, held at the XL Center in Hartford, CT. The Huskies have not lost a game since the Final Four National Semi Final 2008 against Stanford in 2008.

The team, coached by Geno Auriemma and led by All World stars Tina Charles and Maya Moore are part of something special and this chapter is not yet complete. Tonight they'll be playing for the Big East Tournament Championship against second seed West Virginia. During this winning streak UCONN has never won by anything less than double figures- and the conventional wisdom is they'll win tonight's game with relative ease, behind a huge fan base in what was previously known as the Hartford Civic Center.

These current Huskies beat the win streak of 70 (2001-03) in a row which a previous edition of Huskies owned; the Bird-Cash-Williams-Jones-Taurasi team, what I thought was the greatest women's basketball team I'd ever seen in person. What we've seen at UCONN might be the greatest sustained period of excellence in college sports since the UCLA men's basketball dynasty of the 1960's and '70's. This program deserves to be included in the same conversation as UCLA (88 wins in a row), Oklahoma football in the 1950's (47 in a row), and their counterparts at the University of Tennessee women's basketball.

I'll give them their due; I think what they have done as a team is as amazing in its way as Cal Ripken's consecutive game streak, or even Joe DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak; and I know some who have read that will want me burned at the stake for heresy for saying that.

Congrats to this team, and its excellent coach.

Now having said that....isn't it time the Women's Big East Tournament ceased to be "The UCONN Invitational", where the rest of the conference comes to play on one of UCONN"s home courts, in front of a packed house of people dressed in UCONN blue?

What we saw yesterday, in addition to watching some excellent basketball from UCONN, was more or less an anointing and coronation by many in the national media, and was a case of incredible shilling by ESPN, who will be broadcasting the Women's NCAA Tournament again this year.

The Notre Dame- UCONN game led off the night's events, to be followed by Rutgers -West Virginia in the other semi-final. Dave O'Brien and Doris Burke, one of ESPN's "A" broadcast teams called the game, along with former UCONN star Rebecca Lobo working the sidelines. In the past ESPN has been criticized by some for seeming to show a degree of favoritism towards the University of Connecticut- ESPN is headquartered in Bristol,CT. Last night's broadcast of the women's semi-finals gave more fuel for the critics.

O'Brien and Burke's intro went on and on about UCONN and "The Streak"; when it began, who they beat, by how much, what former UCONN players are saying about it, what Lebron James is saying about it (whatever his connection is to UCONN women's basketball is anyone's guess)....if I recall, I don't think Notre Dame was mentioned at all except at the very beginning of the broadcast. Finally at the opening tip the viewing audience was made aware that there were, indeed, two teams on the court that night. While the action was going on O'Brien and Burke did a commendable job for the most part, though I began to wonder how much UCONN minutiae they could come up with for the duration of the broadcast.

After switching to the UCONN press conference for the majority of the time between games- meaning that any discussion of the second game of the doubleheader, Rutgers versus West Virginia for the berth against UCONN for the tournament championship- was negated, ESPN relieved O'Brien, Burke, and Lobo for the second game and replaced them with Beth Mowins and Brooke Weisbrod.

Mowins and Weisbrod then proceeded to give the shoddiest job of announcing I think I've seen in a sports event, perhaps ever. Instead of calling West Virginia's 56-49 win over Rutgers, they spent about half of the time talking about UCONN and their streak, UCONN's chances in the NCAA"s, how they would fare against undefeated Nebraska, UCONN guard Caroline Doty's injury...at least half of their chatter was about all things UCONN. At times I wondered out loud if their director had left the building with Geno's team- they spent long stretches of time ignoring the game in front them to talk about the game that was just played. Something is wrong when a viewer has to listen for the public address announcer to find out who just scored, who fouled, how many fouls does she have, how many team fouls do they have, how many time outs remained, who got credit for an assist, who's came into the game....you had to try and pick it up over their nonstop interpretation of the Dickie V School of Broadcasting. Dick Vitale has the personality to make up for such lapses; Mowins and Weisbrod don't.

It was their job to describe the game to those at home; and they failed to do it even adequately. If it wasn't for the five second delay with the radio broadcast I would have switched to the Rutgers play by play team.

I think the biggest beef most Big East fans have with the women's tournament is that its held on a home court of the the best team in women's basketball. Yes, they put fannies in the seats. But its ludicrous for anyone to suggest there is any semblance of neutrality just because the UCONN logos have been removed from the floor of the XL Center. Playing these games in Hartford does give one more advantage to a team that doesn't really need anymore.

Suppose the BCS decided to play the football national championship on the home field of the team ranked number one in the post season polls? For example, Ohio State in Gainesville to play Florida for the championship....do you think that would be fair?

Or designating that the Yankees get home field advantage against Oakland or Tampa Bay in the baseball playoffs, because they draw better, play in a spectacular new stadium, are in the largest market, and in a better baseball town? The sports traditional sports community....which is male dominated...would be going ballistic.

Look....I'm a realist....if this UCONN team played West Virginia, Notre Dame, or Rutgers in a CYO hall in Spokane they'd probably win, most likely handily. But giving such a dominant program home court advantage makes any sense of neutrality a sham, and is another slap at competitive balance- and credibility- in a sport that needs it.

In men's basketball last night Siena beat Fairfield 72-65 in overtime to win the MAAC tournament and its automatic NCAA tournament bid. Siena won three games in a row, all on its home court....the Siena Saints have won 38 home games in a row, the second longest streak in men's basketball.

The MAAC is moving its tournament out of Albany, New York to The Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, CT.....this morning Siena Coach Fran McCaffery talked about it on ESPN. The move, according to McCaffery, is dictated by a need for the MAAC for more competitive balance in its tournament, even if it may mean an initial loss of revenue.

Competitive balance and a neutral court for its members to play on....that sounds like something the Big East Women's Basketball Tournament needs to explore.

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