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April 10, 2014

Too much of a good thing at UConn?

Women’s basketball had everything it wanted. Two undefeated teams were battling for a national championship - dominating Connecticut vs. prestigious Notre Dame.

All eyes on Bridgestone Arena in Nashville hoped for a classic. Instead the fans - in the gym and watching on television - got a clunker.

The Huskies, once again, put on a clinic. The Irish just disappeared. Ho hum, another Connecticut NCAA championship. The final score: 79-58.

So much for the "game for the ages" that some had hoped to see.

Connecticut dominated a team that rolled into the showdown as winners of all 36 games they played. Yet, the Irish were out-rebounded 54 to 31. Connecticut hit 46.6 percent of its shots and held a decisive, 52 to 22 advantage in points scored in the paint.

It was the ninth championship for UConn women's basketball and coach Geno Auriemma. The victory was the 40th in 40 tries this season for the Huskies.

And that is becoming a growing and openly discussed problem for the women’s game: There’s Connecticut, then there's everyone else.

While the Connecticut women’s program has grown into a juggernaut, the women’s tournament has become stagnant over the past 10 years. Television ratings have leveled off. Attendance along the tournament trail has fallen.

Concern has reached the point that coaches and athletic officials met in Nashville to discuss the state of the game and what could be done to make the tournament more attractive and compelling. The consensus was that there are no simple solutions.

Organizers would like bigger crowds, but that’s difficult to accomplish when the men’s tournament runs simultaneously. Connecticut fans had a choice of following the men on their own ride of destiny to cut down the nets, or head off with the women.

Besides, how much basketball can fans consume when NCAA tournament games stretch out for more than 12 hours a day in the early rounds? Scheduling – and exposure - is a big problem.

Women’s teams are good and getting better, no question. The problem is - unlike the men’s game, to a degree - the talent pool that women’s teams draw from isn’t as deep as the one available to men’s coaches. That’s why so many of the same women’s teams keep winding up in the Final Four.

Connecticut, which has a 73-7 record in the NCAA tournament since 2000, has now played in seven consecutive national semifinals. Stanford has made an appearance there in six of the past seven, and Notre Dame’s streak is four in a row.

That speaks to the strength of certain programs. It's also a comment on how a few teams dominate, year in and year out.

Look at it this way: Since the women’s tournament was first played in 1982, Tennessee and Connecticut have combined for 17 championships – more than half.

This is not a knock on Connecticut or the amazing program that Auriemma has built. This year the Huskies defeated teams by an average of 34.6 points per game. That may look impressive on a stat sheet, but it doesn’t get fans buzzing.

Connecticut is so good that it pummeled Louisville, its American Athletic Conference rival, three times this year. What’s interesting about that is the Cardinals lost only five games all year and were ranked 4th in the final Associated Press poll.

That’s one of the reasons “parity” hardly describes the current state of women’s college basketball.

What does the future hold?

It’s clear that Connecticut isn’t going to reverse course and come sprinting back to the pack. The Huskies’ Breanna Stewart, who scored 21 points against Notre Dame, is reigning AP Player of the Year. She’s just a sophomore and gets two more shots at another championship before the end of her college career.

Maybe someone will step up next year and battle the Huskies for a championship. If not, it would appear that the only challenge facing Connecticut could be a struggle with complacency.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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