- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Whatever happens Tuesday night when Connecticut and Notre Dame meet for the NCAA title (ESPN and WatchESPN, 8:30 ET), Division I women's basketball will have an undefeated champion for the eighth time.
If it's UConn, it will be the program's fifth perfect season and ninth national championship. Notre Dame won a title in 2001 but has never had an undefeated season. Tuesday's winner will mark the fourth time in six years a team ran the table.
"I know in anything, if you don't have a lead dog, then you're directionless," ACC associate commissioner Nora Lynn Finch said. "And we all need a standard to which you're comparing yourself.
"I would like to see that expand to be a dozen teams someday that are 'lead dogs.' And I think we have many programs that you can point to who might be able to do that. But the semifinal scores here this year tell us that we do truly have the two best teams playing for this title."
But when the sport gets another perfect team Tuesday night, will that be good for women's basketball?
Yes, and here's why: The Huskies and Fighting Irish have not reached the last game of the season unbeaten because they are the least-crummy of the pool of contenders to win it all. They've done so because both are really, really talented and have performed to a level that matches their talent. And that gives every other team in the country something to aspire to, no matter how frustrating it might seem to those who've come up short in comparison.
Finch has a vast perspective on this topic, as she was selection committee chairwoman of the first women's NCAA tournament in 1982. In the early 1980s, Louisiana Tech, Southern Cal, Old Dominion, Texas and Tennessee were considered standard-bearers for women's basketball.
Texas had the first perfect season in the NCAA era, in 1986. Tennessee would turn out to be the most successful of that group overall, though, eventually winning eight NCAA titles, including a perfect season in 1998. That year, Pat Summitt's Tennessee program won its third NCAA title in a row, and it was the Lady Vols' sixth championship in 12 years. So people were also asking in 1998, "Does it really help the women's game for Tennessee to be this good?"
And guess what? The answer then was "yes," too. Because Tennessee's greatness helped spur the same from UConn.
The Huskies had their own perfect season, in 1995, even before Tennessee did. And UConn really hasn't been out of the mix since. Additional championships came in 2000, '02, '03, '04, '09, '10 and '13. UConn was perfect in three of those seasons, including a record 90-game winning streak that began in November 2008 and ran to December 2010.
And a key game not just for the teams involved, but for women's basketball in general, was the heavily hyped first meeting between UConn and Tennessee, in January 1995 on ESPN. At a jam-packed Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., the Huskies won 77-66, and it was a mile-marker for the sport.
"We needed to be in that game on national television, to be tested like that," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "What it also did was give us a platform to go recruit the best players in the country.
"When we won that game, and when we won [the '95 NCAA title] in Minneapolis, I never imagined it would come to this. That's a little far-fetched, to think that this was in the cards. I kind of just shake my head. I would hate us, too."
The latter statement is in regard to the fact the Huskies aren't especially popular with the general women's basketball audience because of "UConn fatigue." UConn has been to the Women's Final Four seven years in a row, and 12 of the past 15 seasons.
The Huskies and Auriemma are beloved beyond words in their corner of the world in New England. Elsewhere, they are the team that other teams' fans want to see get beat.
"I think there is some jealousy, but Geno has earned the respect, and his teams have delivered," Finch said. "They've won the events, and that's where we gauge teams. They've earned it. People were jealous of Pat, too. People got tired of seeing Tennessee. They are tired of UConn now."
That's true of the dedicated women's basketball fans. But what about the general sports viewers who might only check into the women's game around tournament time? Is UConn more a draw for them, because the Huskies have been synonymous with "great" for so long?
Doesn't every sport get a boost when there is a Goliath that might be knocked down?
"When we initially came to Connecticut, we already had a target on our backs," Huskies center Stefanie Dolson said of she and fellow senior Bria Hartley, although Dolson could have been talking about any UConn player of the past two decades. "It's something you get used to, and you definitely embrace. You just have to go out on the court with that confidence that, 'We know no one wants to see us win, so we're going to win anyway.'"
But, as Finch said, the ideal would be having a group of teams that were Goliaths, and who the casual fan relished seeing be challenged or defeated. It's that way in men's basketball, with perennially top programs such as Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, etc., being the "heavies" for others to try to upset.
And we actually have seen that developing in the women's game. Baylor went 40-0 just two seasons ago in winning that program's second NCAA title in a seven-year stretch. Then the Lady Bears were the overall No. 1 seed last year and favorite to win the title. Louisville's Sweet 16 upset of Baylor was the most dramatic, buzz-worthy game of the entire 2013 women's tournament.
As for Notre Dame and Stanford, both have been Women's Final Four regulars in recent years, but they have not won an NCAA title since 2001 and 1992, respectively. That has made a difference in the perception that they are not on UConn's "giant" level. Because when it comes to titles, they aren't.
Still, the Irish and the Cardinal both have set the bar higher for the pool of teams that wants to become perennial contenders.
"I think the challenge of staying there is as hard as it was getting there," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of becoming a year-in and year-out threat. "We've looked and found the difference in the players. We've got WNBA-[level] players graduating every year. When you have that kind of talent, that's what it takes."
Indeed, there's no getting around the need for talent. But there's also a mindset that teams have to have. There is institutional experience that older players pass down to younger ones. There is an expectation of championship-level play that must be met consistently in practice before it can manifest itself in games.
This season, the bar of excellence has been reached by two teams over the entire season. Tuesday will be perfect versus perfect. Is it good for women's basketball? Of course, it is.
"Sports fans naturally will be intrigued by two undefeated teams in anything after an entire season," Finch said. "That is a head-turner. I think there will be a lot of people who tune in early for that. My hope is the game remains entertaining for 40 minutes so they stay with it."
Whether UConn or Notre Dame wins Tuesday, women's college basketball will have an undefeated champion for the fourth time in six seasons. Is that good or bad for the sport?