As a mythos, giant-slaying seems like a safe bet to stick around for however long mankind does. Whether it’s David taking down Goliath with a slingshot, Jack keeping his bones from being ground into bread by chopping down a beanstalk, or Notre Dame stunning UCLA with a suffocating full-court press, human beings have always been obsessed with the little guy laughing at the odds and getting the best of some seemingly insuperable force.
For a variety of reasons, “seemingly insuperable forces” aren’t as easy to find in the world of major American sports as they used to be. With one notable exception: The Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball program.
Listing all of the staggering numbers tied to Geno Auriemma’s time in Storrs would consume too much space and time, so we’ll stick with just a few to drive the point home.
UConn has won four of the last five women’s national championships and 10 of the last 17. In their last 178 games, the Huskies have been victorious 176 times. Heading into Monday night, the team is a perfect 24-0 and the unanimous No. 1 team in the country. In its most recent outing, Connecticut defeated Wichita State 124-43, the second largest margin of victory in school history. Overall, Auriemma has produced a career at UConn that has included over 1,000 wins, a 111-game win streak, six perfect seasons and 11 national championships.
This is the giant waiting for Louisville Monday evening in Storrs.
If the fourth-ranked Cardinals are able to do the unthinkable, Jeff Walz will almost certainly say the right things throughout the media avalanche that will follow.
This is a huge win for our team and our program, there’s no question about it.
But we can’t get too high off this once win, because this one win doesn’t get us an ACC championship or a national championship.
We have goals bigger than winning one regular season.
We’ll celebrate this one on the trip back home and then we’ll get back to work tomorrow.
Unquestionably, Walz will be taking the proper course of action. The reality, however, is that beating Connecticut at any point in a season produces a ripple effect that changes the stature and national perception of a program in a way that closely resembles winning a national title or making a Final Four.
We’re talking about a sport whose primary discussion topic for the better part of the past decade has been whether or not Connecticut’s mere existence helps or hurts it. With that truism still firmly in place, it’s understandable that before March Madness rolls around, women’s basketball only makes a major splash in the sports world when the Huskies shatter some type of ridiculous record, or when they lose.
Let’s put it this way: The group of people who could tell you that the Connecticut women didn’t win last year’s national title is larger than the group who could tell you the name of the team that actually won. The group that mistakenly believes UConn did, in fact, win last year’s title probably outnumbers the other two combined. That isn’t an attempt to justify ignorance, it’s merely an acknowledgement of the way things are.
That same climate has the stage set for U of L to take the next step forward as a program Monday night.
A loss won’t change much. Louisville will still be tied with Notre Dame atop the ACC standings, and assuming the Cardinals aren’t handled in a manner similar to the way Wichita State was over the weekend, they will remain a top contender to crash the Final Four and battle Connecticut for the national title in a month and a half.
Win and it’s a different story.
Beating Connecticut not only exposes the program to a portion of the American public unaware of the strides Walz and company have made over the past 10 years, but it brings in a portion of U of L’s own fan base that has been content to hang out on the sidelines and admire the progress from afar.
It would also set the stage for a further ascension in the years to come.
Connecticut can’t do this forever. The Tennesssee women couldn’t and the UCLA men couldn’t either.
At some point in the relatively near future, there’s going to be an unannounced changing of the guard and the sport is going to open up. One of the programs poised to thrive in that new era figures to be Louisville, which has been recruiting as well as any team outside of UConn and which lays claim to both a brilliant coach and a basketball obsessed fan base.
Maybe the transition began in earnest last March. Maybe it continues Monday.