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Tuesday, March 16, 2004
Season took its toll on UConn's No. 1s

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

The photograph, less than four months after the fact, already looks like a quaint piece of history:

There is Emeka Okafor in push-up mode, grinning for the camera and there, oddly enough, is Diana Taurasi, standing on his back, arms spread wide in a comical surfing pose. She, too, is beaming.

"Will UConn be the Ones?" the ESPN The Magazine asked coyly.

That was back on Nov. 24, when the University of Connecticut's basketball teams were both preseason choices for the No. 1 ranking and Okafor and Taurasi were the favorites for national player of the year.

UConn cover
ESPN The Magazine wasn't alone in predicting both UConn's men and women would win it all.

On the cusp of the NCAA Tournaments, we now know that UConn is the Twos. The men (27-6) are seeded No. 2 in the Phoenix Region, while the women (25-4) are No. 2 in the East region.

Their star players are battered and beaten. Okafor, suffering from a stress fracture in his lower back (just about where Taurasi's left foot was planted) missed the first two games of the Big East Tournament and has been significantly slowed in his last two appearances, against Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Taurasi hasn't missed a game, but has been struggling with a stress fracture of her own (also in the back) and painful bone spurs in her right ankle.

Okafor and Taurasi will be challenged for national player of the year honors by St. Joseph's Jameer Nelson and Duke's Alana Beard, respectively, but neither player seems interested in that sort of thing. What of their NCAA chances? The men are trying to capture their second title six years, while the women are going for three straight. The health and serviceability of two particular spinal cords will define their success.

"There's no question that UConn has the best team," said John Thompson, the former Georgetown University coach, "as long as Okafor is OK."

The same might be said for the women from Storrs, as long as Taurasi plays the way she did in last year's tournament, leading all players with 157 points (26.2) and 20 three-point baskets (on only 44 shots).

"We got what we deserved," Taurasi said after the seeding were released Sunday evening. "You're not used to that No. 2. But that's what we did and now we have to change it. We're not complaining."

The burden of expectation has weighed heavily on both stars and, by osmosis, the two teams.

"Great Expectations" was the headline in the men's media guide regarding the 2003-04 season. And why not? The Huskies went 23-10 a year ago, lost to Pittsburgh in the Big East final and knocked off BYU and Stanford in the NCAA Tournament before losing to top seed Texas in the South Regional, 82-78.

Okafor and Ben Gordon, both scintillating juniors, were returning, along with a pair of enormously talented (and, at 6-foot-10, 230 pounds, just plain enormous) freshmen, Charlie Villanueva and Josh Boone. It was a good thing, too, because sophomore rebounder extraordinaire, Marcus White, was forced to miss the season with a back injury. Later, freshman Marcus Williams would be lost for academic reasons.

The Huskies lost their No. 1 ranking when they fell to Georgia Tech in the semifinals of the preseason NIT. In retrospect, it was a grim foreshadowing of things to come. There was a solid win against Oklahoma on Jan. 11, but Connecticut dropped two of three games in an eight-day span, falling at North Carolina (86-83) and at home to Providence (66-56). In between, there was a nifty win over Pittsburgh (66-65), but when the Huskies lost back-to-back games to Notre Dame and the rematch at Pittsburgh, some folks wondered if they really had the best talent in the country.

When Okafor's back left him little more than a statue in the regular-season finale at Syracuse, UConn lost its chance to win a share of the Big East title. Heading into the Big East tournament, with Okafor's participation very much in question, prospects were not good. With Gordon asserting himself and Villanueva and Boone filling the void in the middle, the Huskies beat Notre Dame and Villanova to reach last Saturday's final. With Okafor providing just enough resistance and Gordon filling it up again (he set a tournament scoring record with 81 points), UConn escaped with a dramatic come-from-behind 61-58 victory.

If UConn gets by No. 15 seed Vermont, the next opponent might well be DePaul, which is coached by former Calhoun lieutenant Dave Leitao. A second win in Buffalo would mean a trip to Phoenix, the gateway to the Huskies' 1999 national title.

For the women, it was supposed to be a lot easier than this. Based on all the evidence, last season was the real miracle as Taurasi and a cast of youngsters beat Tennessee for the school's fourth national title. With the loss of no significant players, UConn was favored to win its third consecutive championship.

On Jan. 3, the dynamic changed. UConn lost 68-67 at Duke and 10 days later was beaten badly (66-51) at Notre Dame. The Huskies righted themselves and won 12 straight games before swooning again. This time, it was a stunning 59-56 loss at Villanova on Feb. 28 -- stunning because the Huskies had lost the Big East final to Villanova the year before and seemed intent on revenge. Looking back, that loss was nothing compared to the one that would follow in the Big East tournament semifinals.

Boston College, shooting a tournament-record 63 percent, stunned Connecticut, 73-70 on March 8. It was first time the Huskies failed to reach the Big East final since 1993.

And how will UConn react 13 days later when it meets No. 15 seed Pennsylvania, the Ivy league champions?

Taurasi has looked a little more limber in recent games, but fellow guard Ann Strother has struggled. The 2002 Gatorade National High School Player of the Year made some bad decisions late in the Boston College game and met members of the media on Selection Sunday with her right foot in a protective boot. The diagnosis: a stress reaction. She is expected to play in the NCAA Tournament, but UConn needs production from her -- points, rebounds, assists -- to go far.

No men's and women's basketball programs have ever won national titles in the same year. For Connecticut -- and Duke, Texas and a few others for that matter -- it is still possible.

Geno Auriemma, the women's coach, is already trying to turn his No. 2 seed into a motivational tool.

"I guess we were horrible this year and we deserve a No. 2 seed," he told the media Sunday. "With that comes this feeling that we're one of the teams that's expected to put up a good fight, but we're not really expected to go to the Final Four.

"I guess we'll find out once the games begin."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.