Celebrating UConn’s equal opportunity

(Editor’s note: UConn’s NCAA-record winning streak ended at 90 after a loss to Stanford on Dec. 30. This story reflects on what the Huskies accomplished when they matched the UCLA men’s run at 88.)

From January 30, 1971, to January 19, 1974, the UCLA men’s basketball team won 88 consecutive games. All these years later, the mark John Wooden’s teams put up remains the gold standard of college hoops streaks.

On Sunday, the top-ranked University of Connecticut women’s basketball team duplicated that number with a victory over No. 11 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden in New York. Geno Auriemma’s Huskies haven’t lost since the 2008 NCAA Final Four (Stanford 82-73), peeling off 88 in a row.

The comparisons between the two teams and their success are inevitable but such discussion, if not misguided, is at least unnecessary.

There’s a sense that UConn’s streak should be taken down a peg because it didn’t come against the same level of competition as UCLA’s 88-game run – men’s basketball having a deeper pool of quality teams. There’s another argument that the UConn women, if they get to 89 and beyond, will somehow be “surpassing” the UCLA men.

Neither argument is accurate. This shouldn’t be a contest. Both schools have plenty to be proud.

The best way to celebrate what UConn has accomplished is simply to appreciate it in a vacuum. These are two different sports with two different and two tremendous accomplishments.

The University of Connecticut Huskies are certainly used to celebrating national championships.
(Jessica Hill/AP)

UCLA’s place in history should remain secure and celebrated forever, no matter how many the UConn women go on to win. And UConn should stand with pride at their remarkable achievement.

One team shouldn’t knock down the other. Both should be lifted by the rarity of the feat.

If either of these things were somehow easy to do, someone else would’ve done it. The fact we went nearly three decades without any Division I college team coming close says as much.

In the 1990s, Indian Hills Community College in Ottuma, Iowa, won 89 consecutive games at the highest level of junior college ball. The fact it lost immediately after getting past the magical 88 ought to tell you how exhausting it was. And that didn’t come with an entire nation watching.

Auriemma, as you’d expect, has this figured out perfectly. He just wants to keep winning and ignore the outside buzz about what it means and whether it’s better and anything like that.

He has no idea how to answer the questions. He figures the players really don’t. UCLA is UCLA. UConn is UConn.

“[Sportswriter] Jack McCallum asked [players] if they knew anyone who played for UCLA,” Auriemma said. “They had no idea. So what kind of answers can they possibly give? What exactly does this mean in the great scheme of things? What kind of answers could they possibly give you where you would say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty thoughtful and insightful?’ ”

This is the ultimate example of letting on-the-court play do the talking.

“Obviously, we have an opportunity to do something that’s pretty significant in terms of the basketball world,” Auriemma said prior to Sunday’s game. “The basketball world views that number as a very significant number. There’s a number of different ways to view it, but it’s viewed as a very significant number.

“There’s going to be a lot of people in the building or watching television that are going to be intrigued, and it will mean different things to different people,” he continued. “If that game were to go our way, it will mean different things to different people. I’m sure that people will have their own take on how it means.”

Yes, women’s basketball has a clear division between haves and have-nots. UConn has the best talent and arguably the best coach (or one of them). Of those 88 games, they should’ve won most, if not all of them. There is no question there were some games during the run that Auriemma felt confident that his superior players would win easily.

And they did.

Women’s basketball has never been deep with quality teams. Tennessee and UConn have combined to win 15 of the 29 NCAA championships, including 12 of the last 16. It stands to reason there were fewer strong clubs in the early days of the sport, when only a handful of schools were committed to the sport and not as many girls grew up playing. No one won 88 consecutive then, though.

UConn can only play the teams on its schedule. Auriemma tries to play everyone – home, away, neutral site. It was Tennessee coach Pat Summitt who ended her program’s series with UConn, not Auriemma.

To win 88 consecutive games is a testament to mental focus. The upset tends to come at the most unlikely time, often to an unexpected team. It’s easy to get up for a big game. It’s difficult to get up for all the games.

UConn has done that. The players have been committed. The coach has been brilliant. The team keeps winning and winning and winning.

That’s what should be celebrated on Sunday – that they hit 88 consecutive victories against the Buckeyes.

Both UCLA and UConn’s accomplishments shouldn’t be debated. It’s not about what’s greater. It’s simply about greatness achieved.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Dec 18, 2010