• John Altavilla

Loaded UConn stands between Stanford and repeat


The goal of winning an NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship has motivated programs for almost 40 seasons. After all, that’s why they play the games, isn’t it? But winning consecutive titles is a dream that has been almost impossible to make come true.

 

Consider that since 1983, only USC (1983-84), Tennessee (1996-98 and 2007-08) and UConn (2002-04, 2009-10 and 2013-16) have been able to repeat.

 

Since the Huskies won their fourth straight behind Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck in 2016, South Carolina (2017), Notre Dame (2018), Baylor (2019) and Stanford (2021) have taken their turn.

 

As the 2021-22 season approaches, the natural question is whether the Cardinal can stack titles. The simple answer: Probably not.

 

Stanford won its title last season on the strength of last-second survivals in the Final Four. First, it beat South Carolina. Then it had to wait until a buzzer-beater attempt by Arizona’s Aari McDonald fell to the wayside before it could call itself champion.

 

And one other thing: The title was Stanford’s third under Tara VanDerveer, but its first since 1992. Not only was that three years before UConn sprouted its castle in the cornfield; the 29-year gap also represents the longest for any coach in any Division I sport in history.

 

Tara VanDerveer

“I’ve had heartache with teams that had a great chance of winning it,” VanDerveer said after the national championship game.

 

VanDerveer may lead Division I women’s basketball coaches in career victories, but she hasn’t produced a program that has been able to sustain the type of greatness that leads to multiple titles. That’s something that only UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Tennessee’s Pat Summitt have been able to do.

 

“When you think of women’s basketball, Pat is Tennessee, Geno is Connecticut, and I think with Stanford it’s me,” VanDerveer told the Hartford Courant last winter.

 

So if Stanford isn’t the favorite to win the next national championship, then who is?

 

Our money is on UConn.

 

The Huskies return every important player from last year’s semifinals team, a list led by rising sophomore Paige Bueckers, who last season became the first freshman named Associated Press National Player of the Year. Bueckers had right ankle surgery in April and was not able to practice with her teammates this summer.

 

Paige Bueckers

“There’s something she’s doing on the court that comes across on the TV screen,” Auriemma told Mike Anthony of Hearst Media in Connecticut in August. “There’s the way she plays the game, or there’s the way she manages the game, handles the game, the way the game comes to her. Some people just have that ability without even trying. I don’t know that she gets up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to try to be a media sensation.’ I think there’s just something that some people just gravitate to.”

 

Besides the returning players, it’s what Auriemma has been able to add that has generated so much excitement for the season.

 

UConn welcomes a freshman class that includes four of ASGR’s Top 30 players. The class is highlighted by guard Azzi Fudd, who has already drawn comparisons to former Huskies All-American Maya Moore.

 

After sitting out most of last season with a sprained foot, Fudd returned recently to help the United States U-19 team to a world championship.

 

“I think USA Basketball is great,” Auriemma told the media over the summer. “I think playing for your national team is amazing, and it’s a great opportunity for any kid and one that you should never pass up unless you have specific reasons to. Being coached by different people, being in different systems, learning a different way to play, competing against older, more experienced players can only make you a better player. I’ve always thought that that’s a huge positive for our players.”

 

Joining Fudd in the class is ASGR No. 3 Amari DeBerry, No. 9 Caroline Duchame and No. 27 Saylor Poffenbarger, who actually enrolled at UConn last season and played sparingly in what should have been her senior season in high school.

 

That’s not to say Stanford was sitting on its hands. Although leading scorer Kiana Williams left the program early to join the WNBA, VanDerveer also brought in a strong class to join Final Four Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones and Cameron Brink.

 

Stanford’s haul features ASGR No. 8 Brooke DeMetre and No. 13 Okikila Iriafen.

 

If you are looking for a possible threat to UConn this season, South Carolina — led by Olympic head coach Dawn Staley — would be the program to focus on.

 

The Gamecocks naturally will be led by junior All-American Aliyah Boston, their imposing 6-5 center. Staley also brings in three of the top five players in the class: No. 2 Saniya Rivers, No. 4 Raven Johnson and No. 5 Sania Feagin, who played with Fudd on the victorious U-19 team.

 

Regardless of who winds up contending for the national championship, the new season also brings with it a wave of new coaches leading perennial national powerhouses.

 

The biggest change is at Baylor, where Kim Mulkey suddenly left the Bears to become head coach at LSU. Mulkey was replaced by Nikki Collen, who resigned as coach of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream to return to college.

 

Mulkey will make more money than LSU men's basketball coach Will Wade — $23.6 million over eight years.

 

"I can't wait to eat crawfish," Mulkey said at her introductory news conference.

 

Other new coaches include Jennie Baranczyk (Oklahoma), Lindsay Gottlieb (Southern California), Shea Ralph (Vanderbilt) and Marisa Moseley (Wisconsin).