Geno Auriemma: Having to defend success 'makes no sense'

Too good for the game? (4:56)

The UConn women's basketball team beat Mississippi State by 60 points on Saturday in the Bridgeport Regional semifinals. Dan Shaughnessy and Mechelle Voepel join to discuss whether UConn is too good for the game. (4:56)

STORRS, Conn. -- Sixteen days before Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy Twitter-bombed the UConn women's basketball team, he laid out a far more detailed criticism of its unprecedented success.

"It's just tough on the eyes for me," Shaughnessy said in an Outside the Lines interview. "When you add UConn to the mix and extract all competition, I have no interest. UConn is too much better than everybody else."

Speaking his mind, Shaughnessy almost seemed to revel in being the starched, stiff voice of male establishment sports.

But on March 27, the day after UConn obliterated Mississippi State 98-38 -- a record margin of victory for a women's Sweet 16 game -- Shaughnessy went public with this tweet: "Hate to punish them for being great, but they are killing women's game. Watch? No thanks."

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, who already has five perfect seasons on his résumé, has heard this sort of nonsense before. Usually, it doesn't bother him. This time, he responded swiftly and angrily.

"Don't watch," Auriemma said before his team's Elite Eight win against Texas. "Nobody's putting a gun to your head to watch. So don't watch. And don't write about it. We are what we are. You know? We do what we do."

The numbers are barely believable.

Heading into the Women's Final Four, UConn has won each of its 36 games this season by double figures and a staggering total of 73 in a row. That's the second-longest winning streak in the sport's history; the first also belongs to UConn (90 games, from 2008 to '10).

Since a 2013 loss to Notre Dame, the Huskies are a breathtaking 120-1 -- a 99.17 winning percentage -- and they have won an NCAA tournament-record 22 consecutive games. If UConn -- which won all 120 of those game by double figures -- wins two more in Indianapolis, the Huskies will collect their 11th NCAA title under Auriemma, who would surpass UCLA legend John Wooden's 10 championships.

No women's team has won four consecutive titles, and UConn seniors Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, along with redshirt junior Morgan Tuck, could become the first college basketball players, men or women, to win four NCAA championships. Five of the other 348 Division I teams share a total of seven championships. UCLA's men won seven straight, but that was in an era when freshmen weren't eligible to play.

Uneasy on his eyes

These days, it is fashionable to wonder if UConn's dominance is good for women's basketball, although Shaughnessy readily concedes his women's basketball expertise, on a scale of 1 to 10, falls somewhere between zero and 1.

"I know they have a great fan base down there, and they're champions," Shaughnessy said while sitting in his stately home on the edge of Boston. "Good for them."

But ...

"They sign up for the championship like you sign up for gym class," he said, smiling. "They just say 'OK, we're here this year. Hand over the trophy.'"

Granted, UConn plays in a relatively weak league, the American Athletic Conference. But the Huskies consistently go out of their way to play a difficult nonconference schedule, which this season included Notre Dame, South Carolina -- both of which were No. 1 seeds -- Maryland and Stanford. This season, UConn's overall RPI ranked 17th in the nation, but its nonconference strength of schedule was No. 1.

The powerful regular-season matchups tend to be ESPN's highest-ranked women's college basketball broadcasts. UConn has four of the five highest-rated women's championship games, including the top two, which each drew more than 3 million viewers.

"Most times in the situation you're defending, 'Why did you lose?'" Now you have to defend, 'Why are you winning so much?' It makes no sense."" Geno Auriemma

Christine Brennan, a USA Today columnist and consultant for CNN and ABC News, has been thinking a lot lately about the success of UConn.

"No one says, 'Golden State, we want them to lose,'" Brennan said last week. "I think it's the exact opposite. So if we love dynasties in men's sports, why not in women's sports? In women's sports, women's hoops, people are calling out for balance, for competition, for surprises. But we're balancing this against an historic moment, something no college player has ever done.

"This is where the conversation hits an interesting intersection. If it were the UConn men winning four straight with the dominant male player, can you imagine the interest? This would be the lead of every newscast, sportscast, A1 of every newspaper: 'Can the UConn men do this?' We're obviously not seeing anything like that in the case of the UConn women."

Said Shaughnessy: "For women's college basketball, it's probably good to have a goal and have a great team, but for the rank-and-file sports fans, it's not good to have a team that just kills everyone, every game, every week, every year."

Auriemma shrugged when Shaughnessy's comments were read back to him.

"Most times in the situation you're defending, 'Why did you lose?'" he said. "Now you have to defend, 'Why are you winning so much?' It makes no sense."

Nearly impossible standards

Four years ago, Stewart actually proposed a four-peat. But she doesn't think many people want to see UConn pull it off, and that includes opponents, of course.

"Everyone who sees you kind of win -- my freshman year, my sophomore year, my junior year, and now it's coming to my senior year -- why wouldn't they want to kind of knock us off? I'm sure that's what every team is thinking," she said. "They're trying to compete with us. And to compete with us, you've got to beat us."

So far, no one has come close (the narrowest win this season was by 10 points), and even before UConn's 60-point victory in the Sweet 16, the Huskies have had plenty of NCAA tournament highlights. In the second round against Duquesne, Stewart blocked Amadea Szamosi's layup, then three seconds later her short jumper and, finally, Stewart snuffed Deva'Nyar Workman's 3-point attempt. In a span of 14 seconds, on three different parts of the floor, Stewart single-handedly caused a shot-clock violation.

In the Huskies' Elite Eight victory over Texas, Stewart's line was typically incandescent: 21 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, three blocks, three steals.

It has been that way all season. In 32 victories before the NCAA tournament, UConn won its games by an average of 39.7 points. The Huskies have won their four tournament games by an average of 44.8 points.

Most of the time, it seemed they weren't playing against another team, but against the backdrop of the nearly impossible standards that UConn has created in Storrs.

Stewart buys into this notion.

"If it were the UConn men winning four straight with the dominant male player, can you imagine the interest? This would be the lead of every newscast, sportscast, A1 of every newspaper." Christine Brennan, USA Today columnist

"In our conference, sometimes the opponents aren't the greatest. And that's just what happens," she said. "But instead of focusing on them, we're focusing on, 'How can we play a perfect game?' Which is impossible, almost. But trying to do that. Obviously, it's hard to do. But that's why our standards get higher and higher each time."

And it's how the program has brilliantly defied the gravity of complacency. Case in point: When the U.S. national team was practicing February in Storrs, Sue Bird, one of several former Huskies in camp, missed a layup.

"Sue Bird," UConn associate coach Chris Dailey snapped, "get your eyes up. Don't look at the ball."

That Bird is 35 years old, a two-time NCAA champion and national player of the year, a two-time WNBA champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist, didn't matter.

'Performance art'

In his home office, Shaughnessy rambles off lopsided UConn scores he had pulled up on the computer.

"Even when they're playing a ranked team, it's a 19-, 20-point game. So, for me, it's about the competition. I love not knowing what's going to happen," he said. "This is performance art. It's like going to the symphony. It's not the same as a sporting event."

Oddly, Auriemma doesn't disagree. But he has his own point to make.

"I like to go to a Springsteen concert. I like to go to a U2 concert," Auriemma said. "They're not competing against anybody. But I go to admire how hard they work at being great, at putting on a great performance that night. ...

"We are performing out on the floor. The fact that there happens to be an opponent out there, I get it. But to me, it's the way we perform that I admire, not necessarily who we're playing or what the final score is."

Dailey, who has been with Auriemma since he took over UConn in 1985, sometimes worries about how easy UConn routinely makes winning look.

"They don't understand," Dailey said, "how hard our players have to work to make it look so easy."

Maryland coach Brenda Frese is impressed with what Auriemma and Dailey have built.

"Because if it was [that easy], the rest of us would be doing it," she said recently, overlooking the court at College Park, Maryland. "The level of perfection in terms of what they've been able to master, nobody else has been able to emulate."

Still (and there always seems to be a caveat where UConn is concerned) ...

"If you're watching a movie and you already know the outcome, I mean, what's the point?" Frese said. "I think sometimes you can get kind of caught in a trap. If you turn on the TV and by halftime the game's over, it can become where you want to turn it off."

Maryland, it must be said, often plays one-sided games like that. In only her fourth season at Maryland, Frese won the 2006 national championship. Her Terps have played in three Final Fours and produced five 30-win seasons. They were hoping to reach their third consecutive Final Four, but were upset at home by seventh-seeded Washington in the second round.

Frese has a very direct recruiting approach.

"We have to, first and foremost, continue to convince players and families that they want to come to Maryland to beat UConn," she said. "I think that is a big piece in our game, convincing women that 'I want to be the team and the next dynasty to be able to beat UConn.'"

Auriemma's challenge

UConn's women have put the nasty back in dynasty.

Over the years, with the leveling of the field in college and professional sports, the term has lost some of its power. The New England Patriots, who have won four Super Bowls over the past 15 seasons, are what passes for a contemporary dynasty. But back in the day, the New York Yankees won eight of 12 World Series, the Boston Celtics 10 of 12 NBA titles and UCLA's men won 10 of 12 NCAA titles. More recently, Roger Federer won 16 of 27 Grand Slam titles and Tiger Woods won seven major championship in a sizzling span of 11 played.

"Sometimes I think we could be considered the Yankees -- and I hate the Yankees," Dailey said, laughing. "So I know enough people hate us and look forward to us losing."

Dailey, who was the captain when Rutgers won the AIAW national title in 1982, is UConn's recruiting weapon and is responsible for polishing the post moves of eight generations of Huskies. She's also a lethal force in practice.

"As a coach, what you're trying to do is put them in positions to show off all their strengths, hide their weaknesses until their weaknesses become strengths. And so, I could tell you what Maya Moore couldn't do, what Tina Charles couldn't do. I could tell you what Stewie's not good at. ...

"But when we play, we hide it, we mask it, until they become better at it. And when they do, then we can cross that off the list. And that's one less thing that could cause us to lose. And that's what we try to do all year, each year, for every player, and for each team."

Clearly, college and professional sports are apples and oranges, but consider this: The Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry, who have been must-see TV all season long, have lost seven games this season. UConn's women have lost five -- in four seasons. This year's seniors are 149-5 and have a chance to win more games than any group in the sport's history.

"I remember when the UCLA men were dominating when I was a little girl," USA Today's Brennan said. "My father and I would watch some of those games on TV and we both were rooting so hard for UCLA's opponent, just to see a different team win. So, ironically enough, it was the same back then, just with a men's team, not a women's team. A men's team could never be that dominant now, so I think it shows us what's coming for the women's game in the next 40 to 50 years."

While there are still likely two games left in this season for UConn, Auriemma has a challenge.

"All the critics out there, whether you're a women's basketball fan or not, whether you approve of our game or not, whether you demean it or appreciate it, I dare you to try to be as good as they've been for the next four years," he said. "Try it. At whatever it is you do, regardless of what your level of competition is, in whatever endeavor you happen to be in.

"I dare you to try to be as good as they've been without screwing up during the next four years. And then you'll come back and say, 'Wow, I really admire those kids.'"