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YOU CAN TELL A LOT ABOUT A PROGRAM FROM the banners that hang inside its gym, but you can tell even more from the banners that don't. Rather than feature each season's milestone on a separate pennant, as is commonplace at other schools, Connecticut touts Big East tournament championships and Final Four appearances on seven-by-three-foot charts along the upper-deck walls at Gampel Pavilion and just adds entries—nearly every year.
The consolidated display is a fairly recent creation—school administrators came up with it in 2006 to make space for retired numbers—but the prolific success it represents is not. Over the last 16 years the Huskies have been so consistent that their accomplishments have become as inevitable as snowfall in the winter. Achievements that are so elusive in other places create clutter at Connecticut.
No one knows this better than coach Geno Auriemma. Recently, while hunting for workout shorts in the team's training room, he found a Big East regular-season conference trophy buried underneath a pile of athletic gear. "Some teams would have this in a case in their hallway," he cracked. Instead, it sits alone and neglected in a glorified closet.
The Huskies added to their jumble of honors with four more trophies (Big East regular season and tournament, Trenton Regional and NCAA title) in an '08-09 season that would see them win a sixth national championship. Ranked No. 1 from start to finish, they didn't drop a game, winning by at least 10 points in each of their 39 wins.
At least they didn't add extra keepsakes to the heap. After cutting the twine following the regional final in '08—and then losing in the Final Four—the Huskies decided to forgo that tradition until they could have the only net that mattered. Once they had throttled Louisville by 22 in St. Louis, they finally allowed themselves to mount the ladders and take yet another prize.
As seasons go, it would be tough to envision another playing out more perfectly. And yet, the people of Storrs have come to expect this kind of season. Yeah, the Huskies went undefeated, but this is the third time now. Sure, Geno was named the AP Coach of the Year, but this is his sixth nod. O.K., Maya Moore, Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles were named All-Americas, but that makes 14 UConn players who have been so honored.
When's it gonna snow?
If the Huskies were a movie, they'd be Groundhog Day—only instead of trying to break a cycle, their aim is to perpetuate this one ad infinitum. So rather than live in the moment, everyone continually looks ahead to the next shining one. Because the coaching staff expects to sign the best players, Connecticut fans expect the team to always be in contention for a national title. And if the team is always in contention for a national title, then it'll be always playing on TV. If it's always on TV, then administrators can count on that revenue bump in the budget—which then can be reinvested into resources that will help lure top recruits.
The names and numbers may change, but the sense of entitlement endures. The Huskies don't win championships, they break title droughts. Families don't just plan vacations around the Final Four, they start packing before the regional final tips off. "You get to a certain point where you can't go backward," says Rebecca Lobo, who helped create this monster as a player and continues to feed it as an ESPN analyst. "And even those few years where they struggled a little bit, it doesn't make people appreciate things more now. It's like, 'Oh, we're back where we should've been at the past few years.' "
Of course now that attitude has come to define New England sports culture. With so many teams in the region bringing home hardware over the past five years, supporters tend to forget the days when just getting near the podium was cause for celebration. (Remember that parade the city of Hartford threw for the Whalers in 1986 just for finishing in fourth place?)