Back in the day, as Geno Auriemma likes to say, losing key regular-season conference games meant almost certain trouble for upstart programs like the one he inherited at UConn in 1985.
The landscape was different. The NCAA Tournament was smaller. The way the selection committee viewed potential participants certainly was more provincial.
That’s why beating the Big East establishment during his first six years was so important to Auriemma’s master plan. In most years it was an absolute necessity.
“In the late 1980s, we knew that if we didn’t win the Big East championship, there was a pretty good chance we weren’t going to the NCAA Tournament,” Auriemma said. “You had to beat Providence and Villanova, especially Villanova, the one team it just seemed we couldn’t get over the hump with.
“Now, something like that doesn’t prevent you from playing for the national championship. But back then, if we couldn’t beat Villanova, we couldn’t even play for the Big East championship.”
If Sunday’s game between No. 4 Louisville (23-1) and No. 1 UConn (24-0) at Gampel Pavilion were played 25 years ago, the loser might have been on its way to a different postseason fate than it faces now.
Instead, this match-up of The American’s only conference unbeatens means just one thing.
“It’s going to be fun,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “Is it the be-all, end-all? No. But it’s going to be a great environment to play; two teams excited to play. And one of them is going to emerge a game up in first place in the league.”
Both teams are on long winning streaks. UConn has won 30 straight, dating to the start of last year’s NCAA Tournament. Louisville’s 16-game winning streak, which began after its one loss at Kentucky, is the longest in program history.
And both teams will be short-handed. Louisville will be without guard Bria Smith and forward Shawnta’ Dyer, both juniors.
“A am sure their coaching staff will not let them affect the team in any way, but on our end that takes away from them offensively,” UConn center Stefanie Dolson said. “Bria is relentless with the ball to the basket. That [her loss] will be tough for them.”
UConn is without Morgan Tuck and Brianna Banks, who will miss her second straight game with ankle issues.
But both have powerhouse players. Louisville’s guards, Shoni and Jude Schimmel, pack a big perimeter punch.
“And they are relentlessly in the way they attack you off the dribble,” Aureimma said. “They play with a sense of cockiness; they are like Jeff [Walz], confident, tough and aggressive.
Forward Sara Hammond, a former UConn recruit, is a physical, tough-minded post.
“They have a bunch of tough kids who play really hard and don’t back down,” Auriemma said. “You have beat them, not only with back cuts and screens, you have to beat them physically, which isn’t easy to do.”
And the nation knows about UConn’s starting five, all averaging in double-figures, all with strong, specific skill sets.
Still, despite the national interest, Auriemma thinks another major change in thought will soften the blow for the loser.
“I don’t think anyone in the country really plays for conference championships anymore,” he said. “If you asked Jeff how important it was to him to win The American, well, it’s important, it’s the conference we are in. But I would rather win the national championship. That’s what we all play for.”
The Cardinals haven’t beaten UConn since 1993, a first-round NCAA Tournament game at Gampel. For Huskies history buffs, that defeat was their second straight that season, directly after a Big East tournament loss to Providence 10 days earlier.
Not since then, a span 755 games and almost 21 seasons, has UConn lost consecutive games.
Louisville is also 0-10 during the otherwise spectacular run of Walz, who took over the program in 2007 after assisting national champion Maryland. In his first six seasons, Louisville has been to five NCAA Tournaments and two national championship games, both losses to UConn.
But no matter what happens Sunday, or March 3 in Louisville, or perhaps even March 10 when the two could play a third time in The American tournament title game, Louisville’s status as a top tournament seed is secure.
“I suppose there is a chance, if we lost three times to UConn, that the NCAA would make us a No. 2 seed and send it [UConn] to Louisville [for the Regional final]. But is that the best thing for the game?,” Walz said. “I don’t know. Do we worry about sending teams to the closest regional [Lincoln, Nebraska is next in line] or do we make it the best tournament we can make it? Would any more UConn fans travel to Louisville than they would Lincoln? You’re flying there anyway, so what’s the difference?
“But in terms of possibly playing them three times in a month, I don’t think it’s bad [for tournament seeding]. Much of it will depend on how we play against them, can we beat them once or twice. If we don’t, how much will they count it against us in the tournament since we’d be the only team in the country that would have played them three times.”
“But we’re excited about [the game]. It’s going to be fun. Is the be-all, end-all? No. But it’s going to be a great environment to play; two teams excited to play. And one of them is going to emerge a game up in first place in the league.”