Coming into this season, most fans expected the UConn women's basketball team to run the table and finish the season undefeated en route to the ninth national championship in program history. Now past the midway point in the season, the Huskies stand at a perfect 21-0 and appear poised to accomplish just that, having already beaten most of the toughest tests on their schedule.
To help add some perspective of the Huskies season so far beyond just a simple "they've beaten everyone," we reached out to John Altavilla of the Hartford Courant, who covers the UConn women's basketball team and probably understands the larger dynamics of women's basketball better than just about anyone else. John was kind enough to take some time the other day to answer a few questions about the team and provide insight on how this year's team stacks up against some of the other great UConn teams from over the years.
The UConn Blog: So first things first, do you think the Huskies will run the table this year?
John Altavilla: I do, I think there are only two really possible roadblocks through the rest of the regular season, and those are the two games against Louisville. I think even to consider those games roadblocks is wishful thinking, because UConn has demonstrated its dominance over Louisville in recent history, including last year when they beat them up pretty bad in the National Championship game. The personnel isn't all that different, so if you figure that they're going to handle Louisville with ease, that will bring them through the regular season to 31-0.
Then what kind of conflict are they going to face through the regional finals, that brings them to a likely seventh straight Final Four. It's always possible they might get a difficult matchup in the National Semifinal, but the way things are starting to shape up now, in terms of the rankings from No. 1 to 64, which is how all the seeding is done, Notre Dame is going to be a No. 2 or 3, which would put them in the opposite bracket as UConn in the Final Four.
I think we're looking at hopefully, in terms of interest and history, the first battle between two undefeated teams in the National Championship game. That would really be a game for the ages for women's basketball, probably surpassing anything we've seen from the UConn/Tennessee rivalry because of the prevalence from which Notre Dame has beaten UConn in the past, the rivalry that has developed and the fact that they're in different conferences now. I think it would be unbelievable and I think that has a great chance of happening.
TUCB: That was going to be my next question, who do you think has the best chance to beat UConn down the road. Would you say Notre Dame then?
John: Yes, I definitely think so. I had that opinion before I watched Notre Dame play Tennessee on Monday night. Tennessee pretty much had their way with Notre Dame in the first half, and then on Tennessee's home floor they came out and buried them to stay unbeaten.
They've got great depth of personnel, they've got tremendous shooting guards, they've got an experienced big guard in Kayla McBride, they've got an Olympic center in Natalie Achonwa, they've got all the ingredients, they're poised, they're confident, and part of beating UConn is having the belief that you can beat them, and there's probably only one team in the country that has demonstrated proof that that's possible, and that's Notre Dame. That's why I think everyone is hoping, even if it doesn't happen as unbeatens, that they play each other, because I think it's fitting that the best two teams should play.
TUCB: What would you say has been UConn's best win so far this season?
John: I would say it's certainly got to be the Baylor game. They went into a pretty hostile environment against a team that was really confident against them, and with 11 minutes to go in the game, they were ahead by only one point. Baylor had chopped down their lead, Odyssey Sims, who will likely be an All-American guard this year, just made a three to cut the lead to 50-49 and the game really hung in the balance at that point. It was the first time all season where UConn had really been pushed, they've only trailed in the entire season for 26 minutes, they've never had a bigger deficit than four points and that was once. So how would they react to this, and the way they reacted is the way they always seem to react to it, Sims didn't score another point the rest of the game and they ran away.
That was a big win, that was against the No. 7 team, a team that's coming off a National Championship a couple of years back with Brittney Griner, on a difficult road floor so I don't think any of the other games, any of the other  wins that they have, and they've played some pretty tough teams on the road, Maryland, Penn State, they beat Stanford at home, but I don't think those matched the intensity or the situation that they faced at Baylor.
TUCB: Who would you say is UConn's best player this year?
John: I think it's Moriah Jefferson. Pound for pound, inch for inch, she's the toughest player on the team. She's incredible to watch, you can't take your eyes off her, she controls the team offensively and defensively with her steals. She's unflappable with the ball, she went into that Memphis game without a turnover in her last 70 minutes, and those were the games against Baylor and Rutgers, teams that suffocate you with defense, and she was flawless in those games.
I think the rest of the players on the rest of the team, to a lesser extent Dolson and Stewart, who have been pretty consistent, but Hartley and Mosqueda-Lewis, they've gone through shooting slumps this year, but Moriah Jefferson has been the constant fireplug on the team on both ends of the floor, and I think UConn may be looking at their next All-American, someone who nobody predicted would have ever reached those standards, but her numbers are starting to approach numbers that nobody has ever had at Connecticut in terms of assist/turnover, she has a chance to get over 100 in the four major categories this year: assists, steals, points and rebounds. Nobody has done that since Jen Rizzotti, those are pretty awesome statistics.
TUCB: How would you compare this team to some of the great Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore teams that also ran the table?
John: Well, Geno has always said the greatest team he's ever had was the 2001-02 team when Diana Taurasi was a sophomore, and he had Swin Cash, Sue Bird, Tamika Williams and Asjha Joens, and it's hard to argue with that. You're looking at five No. 1 draft picks and all those Olympians, that was a pretty darn good team, as were the teams that went undefeated that had Renee Montgomery, Tina Charles and Maya Moore on them, they were pretty good teams too.
I would not put this team in that category just yet, they don't have those dramatic, trendsetting, starblazing players, with the exception of Breanna Stewart, who I think is a generational player as we'll see by the time she graduates. This team is good, I think the competition they're playing is not as good, which accounts for a lot of their margins of victory. Right now I wouldn't put this team in the class of those Moore/Charles era teams, and certainly not in the Taurasi/Bird era teams, but Vivian Stringer said the other day that this is the greatest UConn team she's seen, and I think that's kind of rhetorical, but it's a great team, a very powerful team, but it's not a very deep team, they only have eight players and they don't have as much star power yet.
TUCB: From a big picture standpoint, how do you think playing in the American Athletic Conference is going to impact the program in the long-run?
John: Well, it's not going to impact UConn as long as they can schedule a strong non-conference schedule. As long as they can continue to play 11 or 12 games a year against major non-conference opponents, as they have been able to. You look at their non-conference schedule down the road and it's strong, they're going to play Notre Dame, they're going to continue to play Stanford, they're going to play Penn State, DePaul is back on their schedule, they're going to be playing in a big tournament in Naples, Fla. over Thanksgiving that's going to have major competition in it.
It's going to depend on the strength and the variety of their non-conference schedule, because their conference schedule, especially starting next year, is going to suck. When Lousiville and Rutgers leave after this season, they're going to be replaced by Tulsa, East Carolina and Tulane, and when you look at the depth of the league at that point, aside from UConn, it's terrible. There's really no other team in the conference, at least next year, that has any sort of national pedigree and any way to compete with UConn on a game-by-game basis.
If they stay where they are, I don't see them losing a conference game for three or four years. Who's going to beat them? You look at who they're going to be playing, there is nobody in the league now who can consistently stay within 10 or 15 points, and then when Rutgers and Louisville leave the competition is only going to get worse.
TUCB: On a similar vein, there's a lot of uncertainly about how they NCAA is going to look in a couple of years. If they allow the power conference schools to offer cost of attendance stipends to their athletes, do you think that could have any impact if UConn can't do the same in the American?
John: Here's what I think about that. When people ask me about the UConn women's program, it's an entirely unique animal. I don't think you can evaluate the UConn women's program in the same terms that you look at every other program in every other college basketball league in the country. I like to call it a castle in a cornfield, because that's exactly what Auriemma's built. Since 1985 he's built this unique championship program that self-perpetuates with All-Americans, and I think the kids that he's going to recruit, as long as he's there, they're going to go regardless of whether he offers them a bag of popcorn or $5,000. These kids are going to want to come to Connecticut to play for him and to play at Connecticut, nothing else is going to matter.
Now everyone else that's in the pool for players, incentives may be hugely important to whether they get a player or don't get a player. You're competing for a tier of players from the Top 10 to 50, and for those players the competition tends to be incredibly intense, especially in men's basketball. A kid may look at where he wants to go to school based on a set of criteria that we may not even know.
When it comes to high school female deciding to go to UConn, why else would they come from California or Arizona to go to school in Storrs, Conn. unless they wanted to play for Geno Auriemma or play for a championship. That's the reason they're coming here. They're not coming here because they're going to get $2,000 to spend in the cafeteria, or to go to the movies or hang out. They're coming here because they want to play for a championship team, they want to play for the Olympic coach, they want to be a star in the WNBA and make money overseas. You look at the European leagues and all of UConn's players are making huge bucks now, especially Maya Moore in China. I think UConn is going to be totally immune to a lot of these new rules as long as Auriemma stays here. Once he leaves and they go back with everyone else, it'll be a different story.
TUCB: Any final thoughts on this team and these players?
John: I think we're looking at a really special player in Breanna Stewart. When all is said and done I think she's going to stand there with Maya and Diana Taurasi as one of the three greatest players in the history of the program.
She's a uniquely constructed athlete, I've never seen a female basketball player with the genetic build and the gifts that she has. She's tall, she can't be guarded by tall players, and small players can't stay with her because she has 2-guard skills with the ball. She has long arms, she's an incredible shot blocker, she has the jump shot of Larry Bird, she has intense athletic instinct and she's a smart kid. I've never seen that kind of a package in a women's player. When I look at her, I think of Kevin Durant and Kevin Nowitzki in terms of comparable athletes, particularly Durant, just in terms of the way she's built. She's a generational player, I think she's going to one of the greats of all time in the history of the program, maybe second all time to Maya in scoring when she's finished.
Aside from that you're going to see Stefanie Dolson become a really good pro player, Kiah Stokes is starting to develop now and she'll be a real key cog on the team next year when Dolson graduates, and I think Moriah Jefferson, if she continues on this path, USA Basketball is going to be looking for a new point guard to lead them into the future beyond the 2016 Olympics after Sue Bird and Taurasi retire, and right now there really isn't a point guard on the horizon who has the skill set to do what I think the national program needs them to do. I think you might be looking at the development of another huge star in USA Basketball.