LINCOLN, Neb. – For the past 20 years, women's college basketball coaches have understood the road to any significant national pinnacle eventually runs through UConn, which had already visited 14 Final Fours before Monday's Elite Eight game against Texas A&M.
During his press conference at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday, Aggies' Hall of Fame coach Gary Blair, as sage as they come, was asked what he thought the chances were that trend would continue now that UConn is left to roost in the American Athletic Conference.
"In my opinion, it seems similar to what it was back in the day at Louisiana Tech [where Blair served as an assistant from 1980-85]. At some point it became harder for [coach] Leon Barmore to get the games he needed to inspire himself and his team to play at the highest level," Blair said. "It was harder for him to convince the great players to come to LA Tech. They began going to places where there were charter flights and better meal money and where everything was bigger. [Sustainability] can still be done, but we're not letting him in the SEC, I'll tell you that. They will not be coming in."
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Blair was smiling when he said that. But then he explained why he thinks UConn was left behind in the latest round of conference expansion.
"I think what is likely holding UConn back is the football program. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how good their basketball teams or other teams are; football pays the bills and until they improve their football, they probably won't be invited to play in the right conference," Blair said.
"Can [the American] steal a few teams to come to their conference? Who knows. That's beyond my pay scale."
Blair knows some big-time schools will refuse to play UConn as nonconference opponents. The reasons are many.
"But, I'll tell you this, [UConn and Texas A&M] will play each other [in the regular season]. There's many teams who won't, but we will. The respect Geno has in the game is why people will play him. It's good for the game. I'd love to play him every year, in the Elite Eight or Final Four, that is. But I wouldn't mind starting another series with him and I am sure you will eventually see Tennessee back with them, too.
"Geno does not need to play nonconference games against the bottom half in major conferences. He needs to play teams in the top third of the six major conferences, not including his.
"And what we need to do for parity is play games like this in January and February for television's sake. I know it's going to hurt us more than it will hurt him. All Geno needs to do is play three games in a week to have one great one to make his team better. But that's no sweat off his back. He will figure it out, don't worry."
Don't Look Down
Auriemma subscribes to the view most coaches share that winning the Elite Eight game is more difficult, in many respects, than succeeding in the Final Four.
It's just always been my experience," Auriemma said. "I like to read books. As coaches, we have a lot of airplane time, bus time, whatever. It's like when you read about people who climb Mount Everest. You know? They get to where it's 500, 600 feet away from the top and that's when most accidents happen. That's when most people die. That's because you can see the end. You can see the result of all of your hard work. But now is when you have to be the most careful.
"So here you are, you are one game away from the Final Four. That's every kid's dream when you go to college. You're right there. You are right on the edge. And it affects people in different ways. That's why I think it's difficult."
After the completion of their practice Sunday, the Huskies watched the end of the UConn men's Elite Eight game and recorded a short video of congratulations for them. … The proposed UConn men's and women's doubleheader, to be played at either Madison Square Garden or Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., next season, is apparently gaining moment but appears contingent, as usually is the case, on finding opponents attractive enough to entice the facilities' approval. ... Senior center Stefanie Dolson, senior guard Bria Hartley and sophomore forward Breanna Stewart have earned a spot on the U.S. Basketball Writers Association All-America team and are finalists for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award as national player of the year. Dolson is the fifth Husky to earn multiple selections to the team, which began in 1996, joining Nykesha Sales, Svetlana Abrosimova, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore.