UConn the team to beat, but again Vols stand in way
Posted: Tuesday March 18, 2008 9:44AM; Updated: Tuesday March 18, 2008 11:26PM
In his 31 years as coach at Villanova, Harry Perretta has become adept at distinguishing the great Connecticut teams from the merely good. His analysis of the 2007-08 edition of the Huskies, the overall top seed in the tournament? "Extremely talented," he says. "The only difference I see between this team and the one that went undefeated with Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi in 2002 [and is considered one of the greatest teams of all time] is inexperience."
Setting aside its 73-71 loss at Rutgers on Feb. 5 and a few close calls, UConn (32-1) has dominated opponents, winning by an average margin of 30.5 points. These Huskies have so far faced a tougher road than the 2001-02 squad did. Consider first that they are playing in a Big East Conference that's far stronger than it was in '01-02. Then consider: This team lost two starters to season-ending knee injuries. "That's what blows my mind," says LSU associate head coach Bob Starkey, whose team fell to UConn 74-69 in February. "They lost Kalana Greene, an outstanding athlete, and Mel Thomas, a great spot-up shooter, and they're still a notch above."
It's likely that no other team could have survived such losses because no other team had freshman forward Maya Moore waiting in the wings. The 6-foot phenom from Lawrenceville, Ga., has started the last 25 games, and is shooting 43.9% from beyond the arc and delivering 17.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists a game. She has worked her way into every national player of the year conversation. "Maya is as dominant a freshman as I've ever seen," says Perretta. "And not just from a talent standpoint. She's smart; she knows what to do." Meanwhile sophomore Tina Charles has blossomed in the post, and junior Renee Montgomery (14.2 points, 4.0 assists per game) has continued to be the driving force of the team even after moving from the point to shooting guard to replace Thomas. "Connecticut can hit you from all five spots offensively, and the Huskies have stepped it up a notch defensively," says LSU coach Van Chancellor. "That freshman can shoot in the dark!"
For all its title-contender credentials, UConn, which hasn't been to the Final Four since 2004, has yet to play its traditional measuring stick, third-ranked and defending national champion Tennessee (30-2). For the first time in 13 years the two powers did not meet in the regular season. (Vols coach Pat Summitt declined to renew the series last June. Although she has never explained her decision publicly, Tennessee has filed two complaints with the NCAA about Connecticut's recruitment of Moore.) That's one reason a potential winner-take-all matchup in the final between these two heavyweights would be the most anticipated game of the tournament. Here's another: It would be fans' only chance to see two players who are destined for the sport's pantheon -- UConn's Moore and Tennessee's graduating 6' 4" forward, Candace Parker -- face off in college.
"I would love to play Tennessee," says Moore, who of course has no guarantee that she'll get that opportunity. "I think it's a great rivalry, and it's good for women's basketball." And whether the games happen in January or April, it is always compelling theater.