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Monday, December 20, 2010
Updated: December 21, 11:34 AM ET
UConn 'presence' plays its part

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPN.com

Ohio State is not a lousy team. The Buckeyes were obliterated by 31 points on national television by UConn on Sunday as the Huskies reached 88 wins in a row … but Ohio State isn't terrible.

Neither are a lot of teams that have been made to look that way by the Big Blue Machine during its ongoing journey of perfection.

Tiffany Hayes & Maya Moore
If you looked over at the other huddle and saw this type of talent and 88 consecutive wins walking toward you, would you be able to see past that presence and play your game?

So why have so many opponents looked hopeless against UConn? Why did people, quite frankly, not expect the Buckeyes to really challenge UConn? Nor think that Tuesday's opponent, Florida State, will, either? (Even before the Seminoles' surprising loss to Yale on Saturday.)

Certainly, the Huskies are extremely good. They have very hard practices, they demand excellence, they stay hungry. They play to a standard rather than to the level of their opponent.

All true. But something else is at work for UConn. It has been the case for several years now, even when the Huskies aren't in the midst of winning an absurd number of games in a row.

(Actually, they've lost so rarely in the past two decades -- this is their second winning streak of at least 70 victories -- that it seems as if they are frequently on some kind of winning streak.)

It's this: The Huskies have a "presence." Tennessee does, too, of course. Even in those rare seasons when one program or the other is not as powerful as it typically has been, the presence is still there.

There's no quick way to get that: You have to win a lot of games over many years. You have to win championships. Your name has to stand out almost as if it's lit in neon on your opponents' schedules. That way, your foes walk into an arena to face you knowing that -- no matter what they might say -- this is not just another game.

Now, if you're the team with a presence, most games actually do feel the same to you emotionally, and that's an advantage. Yes, there are some games that have a different atmosphere, such as when you're going against another team that has a presence, at least in some capacity. But there aren't that many teams that do.

This is not to say that UConn only has to show up to win games because that's not what having a presence is all about. To the contrary, the reason you have it is because you're always exemplifying it.

Having a presence is different from just being the favored team in a matchup. There are all kinds of hierarchies in that regard. If you're from a major conference going against a team from a small league in nonconference play, you might have a swagger in that game that doesn't necessarily transfer into league play.

If you're a power in your conference, you might have a presence in those games against annual foes you're used to beating more often than not.

But only a select few have a presence in every game. Some programs, such as Baylor under coach Kim Mulkey, have elevated themselves to where they are more consistently at that level or close to it.

Because she played and coached for another program that for many years had a presence -- Louisiana Tech -- Mulkey knows how difficult it is not just to build that but to sustain it. The landscape/economics of women's collegiate sports have eroded Louisiana Tech's presence from what it once was. But many other programs that, unlike Louisiana Tech, have the financial advantages of being in a major conference never develop a presence.

This is not to say that UConn only has to show up to win games because that's not what having a presence is all about. To the contrary, the reason you have it is because you're always exemplifying it.

Has UConn had some bad games in its winning streak? Absolutely. Last season's national championship game against Stanford was an example of two programs with a presence, but it kind of abandoned each team for a lot of that contest.

However, that rarely happens to UConn. In most of the Huskies' games, even against foes so overmatched that a less-disciplined team would get bored and sloppy, UConn has kept up what you might call a regal bearing.

It's about doing the job right even when doing it halfheartedly would suffice. It's part of the upkeep of having a presence.

The game will come -- although at this point, it has become harder to say when -- when this streak will end. It will be when someone faces UConn's presence and isn't overwhelmed by it -- but also is able to play better in that particular game.

Standing up to a team that stands so tall all the time is a major challenge. That's why you don't have to be a bad team to look bad -- very bad, in fact -- against the Huskies.

UConn's presence has been strong for a long time. The streak has simply reinforced it.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.