If UConn holds outsize influence on women's college basketball, what's next?
Shots were fired each way over the past two weeks, and people ate up the topic of Connecticut bias in women's college basketball.
Retired Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw "absolutely" believes there's "complete bias" toward UConn, she made clear on a podcast released on Dec. 22 The second time UConn head coach Geno Auriemma was asked about these comments, he pulled out an entire arsenal to retort back comparing championship trophies.
It missed the entire point that prompted the slinging, and that's a problem if gatekeepers are committed to moving past it. Unsurprisingly, somewhere between McGraw's extended conversation with Kate Fagan and Jessica Smetana on the "Off The Looking Glass" podcast and Auriemma's snarky "scoreboard" remarks, the crux of the topic was lost. Let's bring it back.
In the very first episode of their new Meadowlark podcast, Fagan introduced the theory that UConn has an outsized influence on women's basketball. She called it "UConn privilege," the idea attending and playing for UConn sets a player and the entities around her up for continued success based on school recognition alone. It is, essentially, the Ivy League of women's basketball.
Fagan spoke of the theory as "more of an invitation to think about the world and the water in which UConn swims" rather than blame the school for fostering it. LSU alumna Seimone Augustus fell on the true side and UConn alumna Renee Montgomery called it false. This theory continued through each episode, including with McGraw as she pointed to the subtopics of outspoken coaching, media treatment and player rankings and watch lists.
If you, after going and listening to the in-depth conversations from all of these individuals, believe UConn holds outsized influence, the next question becomes how can that be remedied? Storytelling for more programs, players and coaches is a first step at all levels of the game. And though we're seeing changes, nights like Thursday are proof positive in how UConn gained its influence and how other schools have not.
It was a packed night in the SEC as it always is with three matchups of top-25 teams: Nos. 7 vs. 25, Nos. 15 vs. 21 and Nos. 1 vs. 13. The latter not only had the highest-ranked teams in South Carolina and LSU, respectively, it had a superstar coaching battle of Dawn Staley vs. Kim Mulkey competing as conference foes for the first time.
It must have been the SEC Network feature piece, or even bumped up to ESPN2, right? No, it was buried on SECN+ and longtime LSU sports announcers were on the call. It was obvious, and at times awkward, how one-sided the broadcast felt. Names were mispronounced, and early on, one noted it was a "get out the ice packs" type of physical game. For sure, but there was no additional context or even note this is the SEC basketball way.
This combined for a poor television product, while the play on the court was top-notch as expected. That's not how you grow the game. That's not how you spotlight top teams. It's not how you showcase the nation's best players, including Player of the Year contender Aliyah Boston.
And it's exactly that kind of thing that wouldn't happen now to UConn, which in turn allows the program to continue receiving the best of the best that sprouts into the name recognition. This is not to lay blame on the Huskies, just as it's not to lay blame on the New England Patriots for the years of constant magazine profiles. They've earned that right. But in the NFL, other teams have multiple beat reporters, nationally aired games, video crews, you name it. Everything is name recognition for them.
Geno's not wrong. ESPN did not help the school win 111 games in a row or four straight championships. But its placement on ESPN proper and the company's premier shows as the only women's college basketball topic sure as hell helped them pull in, for example, Breanna Stewart, who led them to those things. It's a "more bang for your buck situation," as Fagan asserts. Which means McGraw is also not wrong.
We've seen changes over the past 5-10 years that have swung the pendulum. Beat reporters in Columbia, South Carolina, and for other women's programs around the nation. Social media is a great equalizer. More TV programming with conference networks has done wonders getting a game like South Carolina-LSU on TV at all.
Yet, we can't get bogged down in McGraw and Auriemma's fired shots and lose sight of the real crux of Fagan's theory. If we do, it becomes exactly what Montgomery pointed out on the first episode. Even centering the conversation on if UConn is bad for the sport or if there's UConn bias contributes to that cycle. And so we go again.
The tea is piping hot and fun. But there's also so much more tea to be had.
Stats of the week
No. 1 South Carolina continues to back up its case for best program in the nation and it is in no small part a byproduct of being led by Dawn Staley.
Staley doesn't shy away from building a crushing nonconference schedule, and that's even knowing there's always a tough SEC schedule to follow. The Gamecocks ran their wins over ranked opponents to seven with its 66-60 victory against LSU on Thursday night. And on Sunday, they made it eight following a 74-54 mark against No. 21 Kentucky.
With that LSU victory came a first for Staley and the Gamecocks. They became the first to defeat coaching icons Auriemma (UConn), Tara VanDerveer (Stanford) and Mulkey (LSU) in the same season.
🐐things because @dawnstaley built this schedule for us … and built US for IT 😤 https://t.co/0RkAk4GQCb
— GamecockWBB (@GamecockWBB) January 7, 2022
VanDerveer is the winningest coach in Division I women's basketball with a 1,134-258 (0.815) record as of Friday in her 43rd season. She and the Cardinal won their third championship in April, tying Baylor for third-most in NCAA history. Auriemma, in his 37th year, ranks second with a 1,125-147 (0.884) record and has 11 national championships with the Huskies.
Mulkey, the youngest of the crew with 22 seasons at the helm, is 646-106 (.859) having coached three title teams at Baylor and now in her first year at LSU. Staley is 517-184 (.738) over eight seasons at Temple and 14 at South Carolina. The Gamecocks won their first and only title in 2017.
Oh, and on top of ruling the court, Staley is starting a podcast.
Let's check in on Caitlin Clark
Iowa continues to struggle, but let's check in on Caitlin Clark and oh my —
Clark scored 30 points in a 77-69 loss to Northwestern and followed it three days later with 31 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds against Nebraska in a 95-86 win. By halftime of the latter game, she had put up a 17p/9a/5r/1b line that had happened only nine times so far this season in entire games, via Her Hoop Stats.
Clark played all but three minutes total in those contests shooting 17-for-27 (63%) from 2-point range. But her 3-point shooting continues to be a struggle as she went 2-for-14 (14.3%) in those games.
She's also pure fun, or purely fun to hate depending which side you look.
Caitlin Clark had some fun and got some boos as Iowa closed out Nebraska. She put up 31 points, 12 assists and 8 rebounds. 😯 pic.twitter.com/5nbTu3TAKF
— Her Hoop Stats (@herhoopstats) January 9, 2022
Clark was named Big 10 Player of the Week for a third time this season. Her 25.2 points per game lead Division I.
Guess who's back
Rae Burrell is back for Tennessee, which moved up to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll this week. It's the program's highest ranking since Nov. 23, 2015.
📲 https://t.co/ciTiGW6HWd pic.twitter.com/y1MygZdEqn
— Lady Vol Basketball (@LadyVol_Hoops) January 6, 2022
Burrell missed 12 games with a knee injury she suffered in the season opener. It was a large blow for the Lady Vols as the senior averaged 16.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and shot 40.2% from 3-point range in 2021-22, second only to current Minnesota Lynx guard Rennia Davis (17.3p/8.8r).
The 6-foot-1 standout is being eased back into game action, playing on average 14 minutes per game over three games last week. Tennessee plays Vanderbilt on Thursday and Kentucky on Sunday.
Upsets of the week
As always, for these purposes an upset is a lower or non-ranked team defeating a higher-ranked team. Rankings are as of the game, with Associated Press poll movement in parentheses.
No. 8 Michigan 58, Nebraska 79 (Michigan down 3; Nebraska receiving votes)
No. 9 Texas 61, Texas Tech 74 (Texas down 4)
No. 15 Georgia 76, No. 21 Kentucky 84 (Georgia down 2; Kentucky up 2)
No. 22 Iowa 69, Northwestern 77 (Iowa dropped out, 38 votes)
No. 25 Texas A&M 89, Florida 97 (2OT) (A&M dropped out)
No. 4 Arizona 67, USC 76 (Arizona down 3)
With Arizona's loss, the last undefeated team in Division I is Colorado (13-0). The Buffaloes, who moved back into the AP rankings at No. 22, host No. 2 Stanford (11-3) on Friday.
What to watch this week
No. 9 Iowa State (14-1, 3-0 Big 12) at No. 25 Kansas State (13-2, 3-0 Big 12), 7:30 p.m. ET on Big12/ESPN+
No. 14 Baylor (10-3, 0-1 Big 12) at No. 23 Oklahoma (13-2, 2-1 Big 12), 7 p.m. ET
Virginia Tech (11-4, 3-1 ACC) at No. 16 Duke (11-2, 2-1 ACC), 6 p.m. ET on ACCN
Texas A&M (10-5, 0-3 SEC) at No. 1 South Carolina (15-1, 3-1 SEC), 7 p.m. ET on SECN
Mississippi State (11-4, 2-1 SEC) at No. 19 Kentucky (8-4, 1-1 SEC), 7 p.m. ET on SECN+
Missouri (13-3, 2-1 SEC) at No. 12 LSU (15-2, 3-1 SEC), 8 p.m. ET on SECN+
No. 2 Stanford (11-3, 2-0 Pac-12) at No. 22 Colorado (13-0, 2-0 Pac-12), 9 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Network
No. 21 North Carolina (14-1, 4-1 ACC) at No. 20 Notre Dame (11-3, 2-1 ACC), 1 p.m. ET on ACCNX
No. 19 Kentucky (8-4, 1-1) at No. 5 Tennessee (15-1, 4-0 SEC), 3 p.m. ET on ESPN
No. 16 Duke (11-2, 2-1) at No. 4 N.C. State (14-2, 5-0 ACC), 4 p.m. ET on ACCN
No. 11 Michigan (13-2, 4-1 Big 10) at No. 8 Maryland (12-4, 4-1 Big 10), 5 p.m. ET on ESPN