Coaches are hesitant to quantify success in terms of dynasty, perhaps in part because of the assumption — and the demand — that the wins keep coming.
No women’s college basketball program in the country feels that tension more than the University of Connecticut. The Huskies had dominated the sport under Coach Geno Auriemma since he began building the program in 1985, with 11 championship titles, 22 Final Four appearances and, at one point, a 111-game winning streak.
But as the wealth of talent deepens across the N.C.A.A., UConn no longer stands alone as the top women’s basketball program.
UConn has not won a championship since 2016 and fell in a title game for the first time last year, to South Carolina. The Huskies have lost their past three meetings with the Gamecocks and four of their past five against the reigning champions, who are laying claim to a dynasty of their own under Coach Dawn Staley. Where UConn used to be an odds-on favorite to win a title, South Carolina has now taken that mantle for this N.C.A.A. tournament.
There is no question that the Huskies have cemented their place in the arc of women’s basketball and were instrumental in reframing the conversation around women’s sports. But as the national spotlight grows on the sport, will the Huskies be able to meet the standard they have demanded of themselves for over three decades?
“The expectations on their program are incredibly high, and they’re expected to get to a Final Four every year, it’s a lot on them,” said Muffet McGraw, a former Notre Dame women’s basketball coach and a longtime courtside sparring partner of Auriemma’s.
UConn has faced a kitchen sink of setbacks this season — injuries, illness, bad weather, out-of-character losses. Some of its best players have been sidelined for the majority of the season, forcing the team to postpone a game because it did not have enough healthy players to suit up.
But the Huskies rallied at the end of the regular season to clinch the Big East Conference title, finishing with a 29-5 record and a No. 2 seed in this year’s N.C.A.A. tournament. The team will begin its run on Saturday against 15th-seeded Vermont (25-6), with the victor playing Monday against the winner of No. 7 seed Baylor vs. No. 10 seed Alabama.
“They have come through one of the most remarkable years that I’ve ever been a part of in my life,” said Patricia Meiser, who helped hire Auriemma in 1985, when she was an associate athletic director and senior woman administrator at UConn. “The adversity that they have faced has just been amazing.”
Paige Bueckers, a junior guard and one of the best players in the game, has been out for the entire season with a knee injury. (Though she would be eligible for the W.N.B.A. draft this April, she said she plans to return to school next season.) Guard Azzi Fudd, a former No. 1 overall recruit, missed 22 games because of knee injuries. Aaliyah Edwards, a forward and national player of the year semifinalist, broke her nose during a collision with a teammate in the first week of practice. Guard Caroline Ducharme, a preseason All-Big East selection, was on concussion protocol for two months.
Even Auriemma himself missed four games after his mother, Marsiella, died in December and he battled an illness.
Auriemma has come to rely on UConn’s entire available roster this year, including Edwards, a 6-foot-3 junior from Kingston, Ontario; Lou Lopez Sénéchal, a 6-foot-1 guard from France; and Dorka Juhász, a 6-foot-5 forward from Hungary. Edwards and Lopez Sénéchal lead the team in scoring, with 16.6 and 15.7 points a game, while Edwards leads the team in rebounds, averaging 9.2 a game.
By the Big East tournament earlier this month, UConn’s fortunes began to shift. The Huskies finished the regular season with a 67-56 win over Villanova to secure their 21st tournament title. It was one of the few times this season that the team had everyone available on the court, including Fudd, who returned for the three tournament games.
Now, the question is whether a mostly healthy team and a boon from a tournament title will be enough to carry them through to the Final Four and beyond.
Even with the Huskies’ struggles this season, McGraw would have placed them as a No. 1 seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
“They looked the way you expect a UConn team to look,” she said.
That “look” over the years has included nearly 40 players who went on to the W.N.B.A., all under the Auriemma era, including Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Breanna Stewart. Bueckers, Edwards and Fudd seem likely to play in the league as well. But as programs like South Carolina, Louisiana State and Stanford continue to succeed, UConn is not the automatic default option for top talent anymore.
“The biggest thing in women’s basketball is recruiting the top three kids — after that, they don’t necessarily make an impact,” McGraw said. “That shows you how you create a dynasty.”
“There are more good players now, but it’s great players that turn your program,” she added. She cited UConn’s Bueckers and Fudd as great players, along with South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, the team’s star senior forward, and A’ja Wilson, now a forward for the W.N.B.A. champion Las Vegas Aces.
Meiser, who coached the Penn State women’s basketball team from 1973 to 1983 before joining the UConn administration, noted that it took Auriemma three to five years to get UConn’s program “in the right direction.” The results have been something she “never could have imagined.”
“When you look at UConn’s starting five on the floor, you better know that not far behind them are student-athletes who can come into a game and ride that level of excellence,” Meiser said.
UConn’s dynastic status has “already been earned,” she said. But what the future holds is still a question. For Meiser, “there’s plenty of room” for multiple dynasties. The mere mention of the conversation represents a shift in the parity of the sport overall, she said.
“Is South Carolina the next dynasty? I don’t know, but I can tell you they are hands down the most talented team in the country right now,” she said. “I sat four rows up and watched South Carolina and UConn last year, that game came right down to the wire. UConn is one of the few teams in the country that was able be in that arena with them.”
One thing she is certain of: UConn isn’t done as a player on the national stage.
“Trust me” she said, “when you have Azzi Fudd and Paige Bueckers on the bench, UConn is not going away.”