<
>

Playing in the American Athletic Conference hurts UConn in the postseason

For the second consecutive year, coach Geno Auriemma and UConn were upset in the national semifinals. Michael F. McElroy for ESPN

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- During its five-year run in the American Athletic Conference, UConn has never lost a game to a conference opponent, running up a 101-0 record.

Let that sink in for a second. More than one hundred wins. Zero losses. None. Zilch. Nada.

But as impressive as that sounds, it's likely little consolation to the players and coaches who suffered their second straight heartbreaking loss in the Final Four, falling to Notre Dame in overtime Friday.

Despite having perfect records entering the past two postseasons, the Huskies have never appeared more vulnerable. Down the stretch against the Irish, and last season in similar fashion against Mississippi State, UConn looked uncharacteristically rattled and a little lost despite being the favorite and having more talent and more All-Americans.

How could this be? The 11-time national champions are the most storied program in women's basketball history with one of the best coaches the game has ever seen in Geno Auriemma, and they are no strangers to playing on the biggest stage in the sport's final weekend.

But it seems the lack of competition in the American has finally caught up to the Huskies.

If you're rolling your eyes and saying, "They have been to 11 straight Final Fours! Don't you think you're overreacting?!," please just hear me out. The team is still incredibly skilled, with two of the top five high school players in the nation committed for next season, but the AAC does not prepare the Huskies for close games against elite opponents. It's just that simple.

Case in point: During the AAC's existence, the Huskies have had just one game that came down to a single possession -- a 63-60 win over Tulane in February 2017. However, they had three such games against Notre Dame alone in the final five years of their time in the Big East, and they are 2-3 against nonconference opponents in such games during their AAC stretch, with losses coming to Stanford (2014) and the aforementioned Final Four losses against Mississippi State and Notre Dame.

Entering Friday's game, UConn had a 37.1-point margin of victory on the season, with many of their biggest wins coming against conference opponents, including an 81-point win over Wichita State. The Huskies had wins of at least 50 points over Temple, ECU, USF, Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati. They faced USF in the conference title game and won by 16.

As a conference, the American ranked seventh in RPI this season, behind the Power 5 conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) and the Big East, and just ahead of the Mid-American and Ivy League. However, the gap between the major conferences and everyone else is substantial -- UConn was the lone school outside of the Power 5 in the Elite Eight and one of just three in the Sweet 16, which included two No. 11 seeds in Central Michigan and Buffalo.

UConn had the second-best individual RPI this season, behind Notre Dame, because Auriemma never shies away from scheduling tough nonconference matchups against elite teams throughout the season. The Huskies faced Stanford (which was ranked No. 10 at the time), California (20), Maryland (15), UCLA (5), Notre Dame (3), Oklahoma (unranked), Texas (9), South Carolina (7) and Louisville (4) this season -- but it's not enough. And while the Huskies manage to play a few such games during the conference portion of the season, the vast majority of these contests come before the new year.

One of UConn's closest games of the regular season was against Notre Dame on Dec. 3. Down by 11 in the fourth quarter, the Huskies rallied by scoring 21 of the game's next 26 points and dominated the final five minutes to win 80-71. The team also edged Texas 75-71 in a gritty display in January, marking its last single-digit win of the season.

Louisville was the last true challenge before the NCAA tournament, but that was on Feb. 12. Six weeks is a very long time to go without a real test. No matter how tough Auriemma and the players say it is to face teams like Tulane and Cincinnati, UConn's talented group of players don't need to give 100 percent to win those games or find a way to emerge victorious in the final seconds.

In fact, most of their best competition in the later part of the regular season likely comes at practice. And no matter how hard you practice, it can never simulate the feel of the final minutes of a close game. It just can't. And that's what we saw on Friday night -- a lack of experience in crunch time.

When faced with adversity -- when the typical shots aren't falling and the usual plays just aren't working -- a team must be able to adjust and feel confident in whatever changes are made. Auriemma made such adjustments on Friday, and the Huskies rallied from a five-point deficit with less than a minute to play and forced overtime.

But with the game on the line, the Irish had the edge during the extra time, and Arike Ogunbowale hit the game winner during the final seconds.

UConn clearly has no issues when it is able to build a sizable lead, as the Huskies did against South Carolina, the defending national champions, during the Elite Eight. Jumping to a 30-12 lead at the end of the first quarter, the Gamecocks could never get anything going, and the Huskies cruised to a 94-65 win. But that's not always going to happen against the best teams in the country.

The American is putting UConn's future as college basketball's most dominant team in jeopardy. (And if you don't believe just how detrimental being in this conference is for the school, just ask any member or fan of the men's team.) From a fan perspective, it's bad enough not to have any of the established rivalries to watch on a regular basis, but more importantly, it could continue to curse the Huskies down the stretch in the tournament.

Notre Dame, which won its second national title Sunday with another buzzer-beater from Ogunbowale to beat Mississippi State, faces tough competition on a weekly basis in the ACC. The Irish were frequently tested, falling to Louisville twice, mustering tough wins over Florida State, Miami and Syracuse and notching impressive victories over perennial conference contender Duke and 2016 national runner-up Syracuse. When it came down to the final moments of both of their games in Columbus, the players knew what to do, and experience carried them.

UConn had no such experience, and it showed when it mattered most. And sadly, that's almost completely out of the players' hands. The women's basketball team has no say in which conference it gets to play. In fact, conference realignment has largely been dictated by football, a sport in which UConn has struggled to achieve success.

So while money seems the primary concern for those in decision-making roles, it feels unfair that it comes at the expense of one of the biggest dynasties in all of sports.