DALLAS, Texas-- For the tenth time in as many years, the UConn Huskies are in the Final Four.
A 2017 championship for the Huskies would make it their fifth consecutive title and 12th in program history.
As I wrote after their win against Oregon in the Elite Eight, it’s incredibly difficult to try and describe what UConn is doing. The Huskies are truly in a playing field of their own.
The critics and naysayers have even gone as far to say that the Huskies dominance is bad for the sport, but it’s pretty clear to me that the exact opposite is true.
UConn’s 111-game win streak, and their tournament run thus far, is something to be marveled at. March Madness is the toughest time of the year. Even casual fans of either men’s or women’s basketball know this. And yet, the Huskies continue to eviscerate any team that stands in between them and a national title.
Take for instance, their Elite Eight win over the Oregon Ducks. To even get to the Elite Eight, the Ducks had to topple Temple, Duke and Maryland. Maryland, of course, was the team that many thought had the best chance in the 64-team field of beating UConn.
But pretty quickly into the first quarter, the Huskies shut the Ducks down with their defense. They went on a 17-0 run and were up 23-4. They built their substantial lead so quickly, that it was pretty obvious the Ducks were going to struggle to mount a comeback, which explains why the Huskies ended up with a 90-52 victory.
When the Huskies win, they don’t just win by a couple of points. Their closest game in the tournament came against UCLA in the Sweet 16 when they won by 15, and in the tournament so far their average margin of victory has been 36 points.
The biggest thing UConn has going for them in pursuit of another title is consistency as a program. Yes, they have only one senior that sees significant playing time in the form of Saniya Chong, and yes the first three picks in the 2016 WNBA Draft were all UConn standouts, but it’s clear how deep excellence runs in Storrs.
When a program wins as often as UConn has, and is headed by the winningest coach in NCAA tournament basketball history in the form of Geno Auriemma, everyone in the program expects winning a national title every single season. That expectation fuels excellence.
What UConn is doing doesn’t make the sport boring. If anything, it makes it more exciting. No one knows how long this streak will last, but UConn is never going to roll over just because they win too much. If anything, other teams are going to have to start getting up to their level.
UConn still remains the heavy favorite to walk away the winners in Dallas, but in March Madness nothing is guaranteed. To get to the championship game on Sunday, the Huskies will first have to get past Mississippi State on Friday.
In order for Mississippi State to upset the Huskies in their Final Four game, they will need what no other team has had in the last 111 games against UConn.
The Bulldogs’ biggest advantage over the Huskies is their depth. Ten players scored for Mississippi State in their win over Washington, and seven scored in their win over Baylor.
It’s no secret that UConn, on the other hand, relies on their starters to gain their impressive leads before relying on their reserves to maintain those leads late in the second half. Of course, as we have seen throughout the season, lack of depth has not been UConn’s downfall even against the most competitive teams.
But Mississippi State also has multiple players with the ability to take over in tournament games. Against Baylor in overtime, Morgan William had her 41-point performance to catapult the Bulldogs to Dallas.
In their Sweet 16 game against Washington, Teaira McCowan was a force on both ends of the court, recording four blocks and 20 points in the fourth quarter alone, and finishing the game with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks.
Other than their mascots, the way that UConn relies on their starters is similar to the way Washington relies on theirs. But for as great as Kelsey Plum is, the Washington Huskies are still not in the same category as the Connecticut Huskies.
UConn is much tougher on defense for one, and Mississippi State likely won’t get as many looks down low against UConn like they had against Washington. And while Washington has Plum, UConn has all five starters who are able to score in double figures, and four starters who average double figures in Samuelson, Collier, Nurse and Williams.
The Bulldogs will need their depth and will need as many players to score as possible in order to come out on top. With their fresh bodies, it isn’t out of the question for them to look to press the entire game and slow UConn down in their transition.
Mississippi State will get the first chance to take down UConn, but South Carolina or Stanford will be waiting on the other side for the Huskies if they prevail. The most important thing for any of these teams will be to control the pace of the game and limit UConn in transition.
The Huskies have the ability to really get going in their transition offense, and they are fueled by defensive stops. For any team to beat them, they will first and foremost have to score the basketball, and have a short memory if UConn goes on a run. Easier said than done, but ideally, UConn’s opponent would need to have a strong inside attack and still be able to hit outside shots.
All of these theoretical adjustments are a lot easier said than done when you are facing a team that works as a finely tuned machine. Perhaps the biggest advantage for any team on the road to a national championship are players knowing what it takes to win one. And so far, the UConn Huskies are the only team that can boast that advantage.