Jan 02, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Mark the date Dec. 21, 2010 as the moment when ownership of Division I college basketball’s longest win streak passed from UCLA’s men of the early 1970s to Connecticut’s women of the millennium.
Or maybe it didn’t pass. It depends on who you ask, which is silly enough.
On one end there’s John Wooden’s Bruins. Pyramid of Success, Bill Walton, 88 straight wins from 1971 to 1974, two undefeated seasons and national titles contained within.
And on the other end is Geno Auriemma’s Huskies, who tied the UCLA mark by flattening a ranked opponent (Ohio State) and broke it by flattening another (Florida State) just 48 hours later. This streak has also included two NCAA titles achieved through perfection.
Most folks had just accepted the milestones and went back to their NFL obsession – at least until Auriemma addressed the media in the wake of win no.88 against the Buckeyes.
In essence, the self-proclaimed “wise guy from Philadelphia” looked at the assembled horde and felt bemused. He said that the only reason UConn’s streak was getting so much attention was because they were breaking a men’s record – which, in his mind, delights some folks and drives others crazy.
Naturally, the words drove people crazy. Pro and con, before and after win no. 89 was achieved two nights later, fans and critics took their aim at Auriemma, the Huskies, women’s basketball and sometimes all three at once. Some just told Geno to shut up.
That’s the problem with folks that tell uncomfortable truths. We tell our coaches and athletes to be more honest and forthright and not trot out those same clich s every time – and when they do speak out, we tell them to be quiet. A bit of hypocrisy there, don’t you think?
Intentionally or not, Auriemma’s comments kept us from doing what we were supposed to do in this case – namely, appreciate and applaud both the UCLA and UConn marks.
Not long after the UCLA streak ended, Indiana ran 32-0 through the 1975-76 season, the last to go all the way unblemished on the men’s side. Indiana State, in 1979, and UNLV, in 1991, reached the Final Four unbeaten, but could not grab the big prize.
In other words, no one has even approached Wooden’s wizardry, from the 88-game streak to the 10 national titles, seven in a row. Granted, college basketball had less depth in Wooden’s time than it does now, but the great ones these days are gone for NBA dollars after one or two years. Walton and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) stayed. That makes a difference.
By the same token, it’s quite easy to dismiss UConn’s complete domination and the absurd winning margins of its streak as an indictment of the women’s game and the lack of teams capable of even getting close to the Huskies.
Well, no one, in any team sport, wins that many games in a row without staying hungry, even when greatness has been long established. That’s the greatest quality of Maya Moore and her fellow Huskies. They don’t have to prove anything anymore, yet they have the drive and desire of a Big East bottom-feeder that would like to win just once.
That said, it still was vital that somebody beat the Huskies to make things a bit more suspenseful – which Stanford did Thursday night in Palo Alto, leading from start to finish and avenging a loss to UConn in last year’s title game to halt the streak at 90.
The most negative aspect of UConn’s streak was that, fairly or not, it had figuratively blocked the daylight out of the rest of the women’s college game. No one else even got a mention because, hey, they hadn’t won 90 straight, had they?
What happened to UCLA is instructive on this point. People outside the college basketball realm were drawn to it by the astounding championship run Wooden and his players put together, not to mention the 88-game streak.
Yet it was only when that streak ended, and other teams seized their moments of glory, that the game really took off on its course to a billion-dollar monolith that, if nothing else, provides a scintillating climax in March.
Move to now, and attention on women’s college hoops grew at an exponential rate because of UConn’s streak. The mainstream sports fan was watching, either astonished or dismissive of what the Huskies have done. They wanted to see it continue – or they prayed that it would somehow end.
Thanks to Stanford, those in the latter camp got their explicit wish. And that really tied the two streaks together.
For it was Notre Dame that last beat UCLA in 1971 before its record run and, of course, the Irish that ended the streak at 88 more than two years later. So it was with the Cardinal women, who conquered UConn in the 2008 Final Four – and did so again nearly a thousand days later.
So the streaks are now in the past tense. What both UCLA’s men and UConn’s women accomplished is worthy of at least respect, if not effusive praise. We need not build one up to tear the other down. Both were pretty awesome by themselves.