UConn-Baylor a budding rivalry
Sunday's clash (ESPN, 8:30 ET) is the season's most anticipated nonconference game
The end of the Connecticut-Tennessee series caused much teeth-gnashing (not literally) from women's hoops fans and then some head-banging in frustration (not literally) from the Orange side of the fence, imploring people to "Let it go, already!"
And while it would be impossible to recapture all the dynamics of that 1995-2007 rivalry, optimistic observers would say its demise meant more spotlight for other matchups.
UConn versus Baylor -- they meet on ESPN and ESPN3 at 8:30 pm. ET Sunday in Waco, Texas -- is not a duplication of UConn-Tennessee. Nothing would be. But it has some elements that are at least similar -- North versus South and two big-personality coaches -- and is establishing its own dynamics.
The Huskies have won seven NCAA titles and had a stretch in 2000-04 where they conceivably could have won five in a row save for season-ending injuries to Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova in 2001 (no offense, Notre Dame).
UConn has long since established itself as a program that doesn't have any "bad" seasons, just possibly "less great" ones. So nobody except eight-time NCAA champ Tennessee can meet the Huskies on the same kind of historically triumphant turf.
But Baylor does have one NCAA title (2005), another Final Four visit (2010, lost to UConn in the semifinals) and is currently the top-ranked team in the nation. For the first time, Baylor's Ferrell Center is sold out in advance -- tickets were gone by the start of December -- and they can't wait to have the New Englanders visit the Lone Star State.
These are joyful times for Baylor, with Robert Griffin III winning the school's first Heisman Trophy last weekend in New York, and a No. 1 versus No. 2 women's hoops matchup on campus this weekend.
Baylor's basketball elevation started in earnest when coach Kim Mulkey took over before the 2000-01 season. A decade later, she has proven that her program has joined that "establishment" group in this sport, which you can't do quickly. That distinction is all about consistently good performance over an extended time period.
Baylor is not on UConn's level in that department, and no one would claim that. But Mulkey's aim has been to make Baylor one of those teams that perennially is in the discussion for an NCAA title.
This year's Baylor group is certainly there but so is UConn, despite the departure of megastar Maya Moore. UConn has had success thus far in 2011-12 playing with a smaller lineup, always looking to dribble penetrate, reversing the ball on quick cuts to the basket, and exposing flaws/fatigue in defenses by spreading out on offense. These are things the Huskies do no matter their personnel, but they're especially more important for this group.
UConn has had success thus far in 2011-12 playing with a smaller lineup, always looking to dribble penetrate, reversing the ball on quick cuts to the basket, and exposing flaws/fatigue in defenses by spreading out on offense.
However, it's not as if the Huskies don't still have a lot of individual talent. Freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is leading the team in scoring (15.9 ppg) and already has been named Big East freshman of the week four times. She seems on her way to joining the UConn legends department. That might seem ridiculous to say with a rookie standout at most programs but usually at UConn, if you're getting off to a great start, it's because you really are that good.
You can look at the lineup and say the Huskies can't afford for center Stefanie Dolson to get into foul trouble but the same thing was said over and over about Tina Charles, and it pretty much never happened.
UConn comes into Baylor at 9-0, with a 10-point victory over Stanford in November and a 30-point dismantling of reigning NCAA champion Texas A&M on Dec. 6. Those were the high-profile opponents thus far, and both of those games were at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. Sunday's contest will be just UConn's second on the road this season, and of a whole different dimension than last Friday's 70-37 win at Seton Hall.
Baylor has lost both previous matchups with UConn; at the aforementioned Final Four and last year, 65-64, at the beginning of the season in Hartford. So far this season, Baylor's biggest tests have been against Notre Dame (won by 13), Tennessee (won by nine) and St. John's (won by 14).
The stars, center Brittney Griner (22.8 ppg) and point guard Odyssey Sims (17.7), have done just what they're supposed to: lead the team. Redshirt junior forward Brooklyn Pope, who had ups and downs throughout her first year at Baylor, seems to have settled in better this season. Pope and Destiny Williams are a big help to Griner in every aspect, but especially on the boards.
Virtually every season, there is one game that seems to stand out as the most intriguing nonconference matchup, and this year it's UConn-Baylor. The rivalry doesn't have much history, but that might be the only thing it lacks Sunday.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.