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Original Issue

The UConn Conundrum

There's a chance that the undefeated UConn women's basketball team will fall short of the national championship. Really, there is. Of course, there's also a chance that Shaquille O'Neal will be the winning jockey in the next Kentucky Derby, and that Conan O'Brien will ask Jay Leno to be his valentine. You might even be wiser to bet on the last two long shots than on any team keeping the Huskies, who improved to 19--0 with a 74--35 victory over Villanova last Saturday, from their second consecutive perfect season. UConn is as close to a lock as it gets.

And yet, it can be more fun to wager on a sure thing than it is to watch one. Like a young Mike Tyson, the Huskies have crushed all comers, giving the rest of Division I such an inferiority complex that coaches drift into fantasy when trying to envision how UConn might be toppled. "You know that part in the movie Space Jam where the NBA players lose their mojo and suddenly can't dribble or shoot anymore?" says Cincinnati coach Jamelle Elliott, a former Huskies forward and assistant coach. "It might take something like that."

The Huskies had won 58 straight at week's end and are closing in on the women's record of 70 held by their predecessors at Storrs from November 2001 to March '03. While their average margin of victory is 39.3 points, they haven't fattened up on cupcakes—it just seems that they've turned the rest of the top 20 into their personal bakery, devouring No. 2 Stanford by 12 points (after building a 22-point second-half lead), No. 3 Notre Dame by 24, No. 12 North Carolina by 41 and No. 7 Duke by 33.

As easy as it is to appreciate forward Maya Moore's ultrasmooth all-around play or the low-post power of center Tina Charles, watching UConn turn every game into instant garbage time becomes, if not boring, at least awfully repetitive. Even the Huskies' own supporters, among the most passionate in the country, are starting to let their attention drift. Home attendance hit a 10-year low last season and has fallen off slightly more this year. And if the blowouts are less than compelling theater to the Connecticut faithful, how do you think more casual fans feel? Let's face it, there is still the perception in some quarters that women don't play the game at a high level, and we're not just talking about jumping ability. It does little to change that view when UConn is making even supposedly elite clubs look as if they were just plucked from P.E. class.

That's why the best team in the game is, at the moment, the worst thing for the game. At this point in the evolution of the sport, shouldn't the pool of talent be deep enough to keep one program from getting so far ahead of the pack? (It's scary to consider that Elena Delle Donne, the nation's top high school player two years ago, left the Huskies to enroll at Delaware, where she was averaging 25.3 points at week's end.) Wasn't the women's game supposed to stop spinning around the UConn-Tennessee axis now that D-I schools are committing more resources to their programs than they did a decade ago? Yet instead of having something approaching parity, the gap between the best and the rest "is wider than I ever remember," says former Texas coach Jody Conradt.

The Huskies don't apologize for their excellence, nor should they, but they realize the conundrum they pose for the sport. "Sometimes people ask me, 'Why are you so good?' and sometimes they ask, 'Why isn't anybody else any good?'" says Huskies coach Geno Auriemma. "I don't really have a great answer for the second one. I don't think it's the case, but I don't have a really good answer."

Supporters of the women's game argue that fans are attracted to UConn's greatness, not bored by it. "They're a great model for other programs to aspire to, and I don't see why they should be a turnoff in any way," says Hall of Fame guard Nancy Lieberman, who led Old Dominion to a pair of national titles in 1979 and '80. "Was it bad for boxing when Ali was dominating? Was it bad for the NBA when Michael Jordan was dominating?" But those sports were already well-established, not trying to carve out a place for themselves in an increasingly crowded landscape. So, too, was men's basketball when UCLA put together its 88-game winning streak in the early 1970s. And while the Bruins were dominant, the possibility of an upset was ripe, building interest; the Huskies have vanquished each of their last 58 opponents by double digits.

A few weekends ago ESPN centered its College Gameday show around UConn's showdown against Notre Dame, the first time a women's matchup had been so anointed. "Somebody thought it was important enough to send Gameday," says Auriemma. "Three thousand people showed up at seven in the morning. Who would have thought 10 years ago that a women's game would get that kind of attention? Good sign, right?" Great sign. But then the Huskies raced to a 26--6 lead in the first nine minutes. Not a great sign. You could sense viewers around the country deciding it was time to recheck the rain gutters or see Avatar again.

For the women's game to gain popularity, the Huskies need help. Give them credit, give them exposure, give them another national title. But for the sake of their sport someone, soon, had better give them a game.

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The Huskies are making supposedly elite women's teams look as if they were plucked out of P.E. That's why the best team in the game is the worst thing for the game.