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Growth of Women’s Basketball Makes UConn’s Path to Final Four No Cakewalk

Geno Auriemma has seen the sport take a step forward, in large part thanks to the mid-majors.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

When the UConn women’s basketball team was unveiled as the No. 1 overall seed on Selection Monday, it marked the program’s 30th appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies’ first time in the Big Dance came in 1989 and they have not missed since.

In fact, they’ve failed to win their first game just three times, an occurrence which has not happened since 1993. The last time UConn missed a Sweet 16 in 1993, not a single member of their team was even born and the tournament didn’t even feature 64 teams yet. Since then, they’ve advanced to the Elite Eight all but two years, 1999 and 2005.

On top of everything, the Huskies have reached the Final Four every season since 2008 — 11 straight years. It’s as close to a guarantee that UConn will be one of the last four teams standing at the end of the season at this point.

Just don’t tell that to Geno Auriemma. At this point in March, the Final Four is the furthest thing in his mind. Instead, he’s getting nervous thinking about the Huskies’ second round matchup between the winner of No. 8 Miami and No. 9 Quinnipiac.

“If you’re the No. 1 seed and you win, your second game isn’t a piece of cake anymore,” he said. “You’re getting pretty good teams that are playing for the 8/9 seed.”

While Auriemma is no stranger to playing the 8/9 seed in the second round as a one-seed, he’s seen that matchup progress over his 33-year tenure.

“One thing I’ve seen change in the NCAA Tournament is the 8/9 game has become really really good,” he said. “You would get an 8/9 game that was eh. Now you’re getting pretty good teams that are playing.”

The fact both teams are good despite being higher seeds is a testament to the growth of the sport over the years as it progresses from being top-heavy to having a stronger middle class.

It can also be seen in the increase of Cinderellas emerging in the tournament. Last season No. 10 Oregon reached the Elite Eight. The year prior, No. 7 Washington made a run to the Final Four. In 2013, No. 5 Louisville knocking off the seemingly-untouchable Brittney Griner-led Baylor Bears en route to the national title game.

But it’s not just about an increase in the number of top-level programs, although that certainly helps. A big reason the sport of women’s college basketball has taken a step forward is the improvement at the mid-major level.

“There’s a lot of good basketball being played at the mid-major level,” Auriemma said.

In turn, that success needs to be rewarded to give those mid-majors a better chance to succeed in the NCAA Tournament.

“If they go out and they play really good teams, you have to reward that,” Auriemma said. “This idea that a team can finish 18-12 or 18-13 in their league and get a 9, 10 or 11 seed, why? Why should you get that high a seed over a mid major that won their league? Isn’t the object to win in your league?”

Auriemma looks at the Dayton team in 2013 — a 7-seed — that led the thought-to-be-unbeatable Breanna Stewart-led Huskies at the half in the Elite Eight as the epitome of a high-quality mid-major.

“Tell me [Dayton] was a mid-major that year. They were better than 95 percent of the teams we played,” he said. “I’m glad they got rewarded and I think it should happen more often, I really do.”

With the tournament getting deeper and more talented every year, Auriemma knows the path to UConn’s 12th national championship features teams ready for battle and emboldened by Mississippi State’s upset of his squad last season.

“There are no easy games,” he said. “There’s nothing easy at all about winning a national championship. You’re going to have to beat some really good teams.”