Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Updated: March 20, 3:45 PM ET
Right now, UConn's perfectly complete
By Graham Hays
|UConn (33-0) is six games away from the fifth perfect season in women's D-I history.|
STORRS, Conn. -- Sometimes it's difficult to see the forest for the trees. Then again, as anyone who stood in the shadow of a towering redwood might attest, sometimes admiring trees gets a bad rap.
With Connecticut, what's right in front of us matters just as much as the big picture.
Connecticut stands six games from its sixth national championship and its third perfect season. When the Huskies take the court Sunday in Storrs against 16th-seeded Vermont (ESPN2, noon ET), they will have already passed the event horizon of historical consequence. Either they win six games in a row and leave us to ponder the unanswerable question of where they rank among the greatest teams of all time, or they lose and leave us to debate the equally refutable question of where the upset ranks among the most surprising of all time.
But for now, forget what might happen in the next three weeks or how this team may hold up against the measure of perfection and the vast scope of history. The means by which this team has been able to outplay its opponents on 33 different occasions over the past four months is as compelling as the cumulative sum of all that work.
Because whether they're completely perfect, the Huskies are perfectly complete.
It doesn't hurt to have Maya Moore. No worse than the second-best player in the country as a freshman, Moore has been better by almost every statistical measure as a sophomore. Beyond simply scoring more points this season, she's averaging more rebounds, assists, blocks and steals and fewer turnovers.
She shoots 61.6 percent from the floor on two-point field goal attempts, better than Courtney Paris, Jantel Lavender and even teammate Tina Charles, a post. Outside the arc, Moore has hit 75 3-pointers at a 40.6 percent clip. To put that inside-outside combination in some perspective, as of last weekend, there were just 32 players in the country who had better overall field goal percentages than Moore (53 percent). The 11 players ranked immediately ahead of her totaled just 80 3-pointers and shot just 36.7 percent doing it.
Nobody plays the entire court as well as Moore.
Indeed, it often seems like the only person capable of stopping Moore is Moore. And even that isn't happening often as she grows into her place atop the women's game.
"She's a lot more patient than she was last year," teammate Kalana Greene said. "And she's a lot more experienced, because she had to come in [last season] after myself and Mel [Thomas] got injured and do a lot that you don't expect from a freshman. So I think the one thing she had to gain was patience. And she's a student of the game, she's one of the hardest workers on the team, if not the hardest, so when you have a person like that, it's not hard to teach them anything at all."
Of course, Moore isn't the only star. Some felt senior point guard Renee Montgomery would edge out the sophomore for Big East Player of the Year (Moore won for the second time), and Charles is in the midst of her best -- and not coincidentally, most consistent -- season en route to All-American accolades. But even the role players in the starting lineup are just that -- potential stars in their own right playing the role of complementary understudy until called upon for a big scene.
After his team kept things close for almost a half in Storrs in late January, only to watch the Huskies take control and cruise to a 93-65 victory, Louisville coach Jeff Walz had more insights than answers. He had tried to make someone other than Moore, Montgomery and Charles beat his team, only to see Tiffany Hayes and Greene do just that.
"I mean, pick your poison," Walz lamented. "That's the difference [between Connecticut and everyone else]. They're rolling out their four or five or six kids that can all score. And when you can do that, you have a chance to win a lot of ballgames. And they have."
|The Huskies averaged 90.3 points in four games against OU, UNC and Louisville (twice), but UConn's defense is the unheralded key to its success.|
After last season's national semifinal loss against Stanford, depth was supposed to be a given, if not an outright strength, for Connecticut. But the much publicized summer departure of top-rated recruit Elena Delle Donne and a season-ending knee injury suffered by standout freshman Caroline Doty against Syracuse in January shortened coach Geno Auriemma's rotation. That might yet prove to be a liability if Kaili McLaren and Lorin Dixon don't turn in quality minutes off the bench in the postseason, and Doty's energy and outside shot are undeniably missed. But even that adversity helped shape the team's current balance, creating more minutes and more responsibility for Hayes as a freshman.
"I think ever since Caroline got hurt, she's really stepped up," Greene said of Hayes. "She's been another weapon in our offense. [Defenders] don't know what to do with her; they can't keep her in front of them, and if you don't come up on her, she's going to shoot in your face. And I think she's making a lot of teams respect her on offense. She rebounds, she defends; she brings a lot to the table."
And by virtue of defensive assignments, Hayes played a direct role in what might have been Connecticut's most impressive statistical accomplishment of the season.
The Huskies averaged 90.3 points in four games against then-No. 4 Oklahoma, then-No. 2 North Carolina and Louisville twice (the Cardinals ranked 10th in the first meeting and fifth in the second). But consider the points they didn't allow during the Big East tournament. Playing three games in three days, the Huskies held South Florida's Jazmine Sepulveda, Villanova's Laura Kurz and Louisville Angel McCoughtry to a total of nine points on a combined 3-of-25 shooting.
Over the course of the season, those three players averaged 53.7 points combined. And in the games immediately preceding each player's respective encounter with the Huskies in the Big East tournament, they combined to score 76 points.
"I do think it's common knowledge around the country that Connecticut can score the ball better than anybody in America -- they average 80-some points, they're the No. 1 team in America in scoring and margin and all that," Auriemma said. "But I think what gets left behind a lot of times is these kids are really committed on the defensive end."
That Connecticut leads the nation in scoring margin at 31.5 points per game, or that only seven teams average even half of that, speaks to the team's dominance. But only four times all season -- and just once after Christmas -- did an opponent even exceed Connecticut's season low for points (65).
Truth be told, as good as the numbers look in the box score, a lot of Connecticut's offense ends up being little more than a way to kill time until the game ends.
|If Maya Moore is the presumptive national player of the year, senior point guard Renee Montgomery likely isn't far behind in the voting tally.|
"I think we're really just working on being mentally together and communicating," Moore said of the team's defensive growth. "You don't necessarily have to play your man but you're playing the ball, so we're playing more of a team defense. I think we're taking more responsibility for when teams score on us to take it personally."
Defense could be a theme for Connecticut as it weaves its way through the first four rounds. A potential second-round encounter with Temple would bring Auriemma face to face with former assistant Tonya Cardoza, whose team limited opponents to 35.6 percent shooting in her first season in Philadelphia. Beyond that, there's a potential rematch with Florida State, the last of the three teams to score at least 70 points against Connecticut this season, or a potential regional final against a Texas A&M team that thrives on disrupting offenses. None will be favored, but strange things can happen when games slow to a crawl in the postseason.
"If we played every game in the tournament the next couple of weeks and it was best three-out-of-five, I would tell you let's not play the tournament, because nobody's going to beat us in a three-out-of-five," Auriemma said before the draw. "But is there a possibility that on one night you play a team that's out of their mind and you play less than your best and something happens at the end -- how many people thought Villanova was going to beat Georgetown in that unbelievable NCAA game?
"I'm well aware that stuff can happen, but I'm not going to tell my players that that's a possibility, because they don't believe it. They don't believe that will ever happen. And I don't want them to believe it. But I know it, because I've seen it happen. And it's happened to a couple of my teams."
After a typical Connecticut win against Seton Hall on the last day of February, Auriemma wanted no part of the comparisons that began as whispers in the fall and will continue building to a crescendo in the coming days. It was the right answer, the answer you would expect from a coach with five national championships and a roster of players with none. Their focus has to be on the present, not their place in the soon-to-be past.
But as you watch the Huskies spin each other around like amateur break-dancers before a game, hoot at associate coach Chris Dailey's stylish wardrobe and then go out and demolish opponents with an almost clinical detachment, you wonder: Maybe he's just enjoying this particular group of players too much to worry about the forest.
"I don't want them comparing themselves to anybody else," Auriemma said after that game. "We don't want to get into that, comparing this team with another team or this player with that player. Each team is unique; we're not even the same team we were before we played Syracuse."
The team they are is a sight to behold, no matter what the big picture ultimately reveals.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
|Nobody plays the entire court as well as sophomore Maya Moore, who averages 19.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.0 steals.|