By Arnie Leshin
It was freedom of speech and hogwash tossed around by retired Notre Dame
women’s basketball coach Muffett McGraw.
On a podcast released on Dec. 22, She fired the first shots and people ate up the topic of Connecticut bias in women’s college hoops.
Said McGraw with a jab at the Huskies and their legendary head coach Geno Auriemma, “I absolutely believe there’s complete bias towards UConn,” and the second time Auriemma was asked about these comments, he pulled out an entire arsenal to fire back comparing championship trophies.
His response to McGraw? It’s 11-2 coach Muffett.
This prompted more slinging from McGraw, seventh on the women’s coaching list with 936 victories against 293 losses after coaching the Irish from 1987 to 2020. Then she turned to commentaries on television in regard to women’s basketball.
She called it “UConn privilege,” the idea attending and playing for UConn sets a player and the entitles around her up for continued success based on school recognition alone. It is, she added, essentially, the Ivy League of women’s hoops.
But she’s gone too far on her theory as “more of an invitation to think about the world and the water in which UConn swims” rather than blame the school for fostering it. I’ve been around this stellar program for about all of Auriemma’s reign and he has done nothing but super recruiting and splendid coaching.
And it’s difficult to hop on this McGraw theory. Not when Auriemma, since he took over at the Storrs school in 1985, has remained at the school rather then accept other offers. Not much experience, but a genius at piecing together a record 11 national championships, bringing in successive high school players of the year, and assembling the finest talent to ever play for a program like this.
In 37 years, Auriemma is second to present Stanford head coach Tara Vanderveer in the long list of coaching records. In 43 seasons, she has won 1,131 times and lost 257. Auriemma has come up with 1,125 wins and only 147 defeats for a best winning percentage of .885, with no one else close.
He has been to 21 Final Fours, six perfect seasons, and 53 conference championships. A 2006 inductee to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and the women’s basketball Hall of Fame, national coach of the year seven times, and has transformed the Huskies into an unmatched program of excellence.
As for McGraw, she also got ESPN into the conversation, remarking that the channel favors UConn, which is off the charts when you consider that channel 639 SNY (Sports of New York) is the Huskies main network. So far this season, SNY has carried six Connecticut’s women’s games and ESPN a pair.
Bad count, McGraw. ESPN puts UConn on the tubes because of its huge followings of the program in addition to watching Auriemma pound the sidelines with gray hair now, and he, too, has plenty of supporters.
Heck, they never knocked former UCLA head coach John Wooden, who was passed by Auriemma in national titles. There’s actually no blame to place on the Huskies, just as it’s not to lay blame on the New England Patriots for the years of constant magazine profiles. They’ve earned that right.
So has Auriemma’s star-studded program. ESPN did not help the school with three home courts in the state win 111 games in a row or four straight championships.
We’ve seen changes over the past 5-10 years that have swung the pendulum. Beat reporters in Columbia, South Carolina, and other women’s programs around the nation.
But you just can’t get bogged down with McGraw’s comments. As the Notre Dame coach, she was always ready to applaud Auriemma and even hug him following a game against him.
Now 7-3 and ranked a lowest rank of 10, it’s been said that the dynasty is over for UConn. Not quite, not even close.
With All-America and last year’s Player of the Year in sophomore star Paige Bueckers sidelined since injuring her knee in the final minutes of the win over Notre Dame, a game McGraw watched on TV. She’s had surgery on the knee and is expected back in early February.
Without her, it’s missing a lot. She’s a 5-11 bundle of energy, does it all as well as providing leadership. But Auriemma has found ways to hang around, losing by only five to 6th-ranked Louisville, losing at 16th-ranked Georgia Tech, and the 75-57 setback to top-ranked South Carolina.
That game was tied at 53-53 after three quarters, but in the final quarter, the Huskies were amazingly outscored 22-4 and Beuckers had a miserable time.
Now she’s on crutches and seated on the UConn bench, all at home and some on the road. With all this, Auriemma has found what lies ahead when Bueckers returns. There’s been 6-2 freshman Caroline Ducharme, Massachusetts Player of the Year, getting plenty of play and scoring at a 23-point clip over the last two stars. She also plays smart, as in bringing down rebounds, handing out assists, and playing stout defense.
“She’s been great,” Auriemma said.
So has 6-5 graduate senior Dorka Juhasz, All-Big Ten at Ohio State before she transferred. She has pounded the boards and playing better each time out. She is also a stellar shot-blocker and brings experience to team with returnees Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards, and former starter Aubrey Griffin is back after recovering from an ankle injury.
And there’s plenty of depth even now, with sophomore Nika Muhl as the point guard filling in for Bueckers. with the 6-1 Williams, 6-2 Westbrook and 6-5 Nelson-Ododa seniors, the 6-3 Edwards a sophomore, 6-5 Amari Deberry a freshman, and the 6-1 Griffin a junior.
“Said Auriemma: “I am happy to say that (Azzi) Fudd, a freshman who was Player of the Year on our long list, is running the court again following her foot injury, and that gives us another outside shooter and crafty player.”
Thus, when Bueckers returns there’s plenty of time for the Huskies to generate a stretch run. She will miss the Jan. 27thcontest at once-beaten South Carolina, but will be back soon after, and then, with what players like Ducharme and Juhasz have shown and with everyone healthy, to say the dynasty is over is simply hogwash, and McGraw didn’t even mention this.
But “bias” is a silly word to pass around. This got Auriemma to shrug it off and just continue to play his hand as he’s done every season. Remember, the last two times his Huskies gained the Final Four, they were beaten on buzzer shots by Notre Dame and Mississippi State, so there’s no way McGraw or anyone else can count them out, especially with “bias” thrown in or wherever else it came from.
Tonight, UConn is at conference rival Butler, 1-11 overall and a chance for the Huskies to win handily. Then comes Xavier at home, Oregon on the road, Seton Hall at home, and at St. John’s. Four wins here would put UConn at 11-4, and after that a higher ranking that it’s accustomed to.
One more thing: “Ashlynn Shade, a 6-foot-2 five-star guard out of Nobesville High School in Indianapolis has committed to UConn over seven different schools and as the country’s No. 5 ranked player.
She said she liked the history of the program, and their basketball stardom. She choose the Huskies over Tennessee, Stanford, Notre Dame, Indiana, Louisville, North Carolina and Vanderbilt. Other interested schools were Iowa, Maryland, Michigan and UCLA.
Enough said in regard to UConn then and now.