South Carolina coach Dawn Staley chuckled slightly at the question.
Is mighty UConn, still No. 5 in the country in the latest AP poll, having a down year?
“A down year? They lose two games ...” Staley smiled.
In the world of women’s basketball, it’s not an uncommon thought. The Huskies have 11 national titles and college basketball’s longest winning streak ever to their names. When they lost twice in the Final Four in the past two years, their only losses in each season, it qualified as a major shock.
With Connecticut’s dynasty looking to be at its most vulnerable point in half a decade, Monday’s game at the XL Center in Hartford might be the best chance the Gamecocks have had to knock off Geno Auriemma’s team.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Staley said. “Every year we look forward to it, and every year we think we’ve got the team to do it, but I feel good about where we are and the personnel we have going into the game. We’re a lot more guard-heavy than we were in the past, so hopefully that will be the trick.”
South Carolina’s offensive shift from post to guard play took time to take root in the early part of the season, but the Gamecocks feel that they’re playing their best basketball of the season heading into the game. And after years of preparing to face the likes of A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates, UConn might be thrown by having to adjust to a radically different style of play. At least, that’s what Staley hopes.
“I think here, they have more of an adjustment to playing us than we had playing them, and that’s not always been the case. Because we had to play a certain way in order for us to beat them. Now we can play our certain way along with having guards that are athletic, where everyone on the floor can score. That hasn’t always been the case when we played them,” Staley said.
On the other side, UConn struggled early in the season as well, with Auriemma trying to replace two starters and his top bench player from last year. The Huskies are relying on young players to play pivotal roles, and that can produce mixed results. Not that Staley is expecting anything less than a vintage Connecticut performance on Monday.
“They’ve always been a well-oiled machine, and they’ve got two pieces gone that gave them some experience, and you add a piece or two to what they had, and it’s taken them a little longer to play UConn basketball. But it’s coming,” Staley said. “And they’ve weathered the storm, and they only have two losses on their record. The game they played yesterday (against Temple), they looked like the UConn of old, and that’s who we have to be prepared to play.”
Still, there’s a void at the very top of women’s basketball, and it’s one that doesn’t have an obvious favorite. There are no undefeated teams left. Staley sees an increasing parity across the sport, and its impact includes North Carolina’s recent upset of then No. 1 Notre Dame, as well as Connecticut’s two losses.
“The parity is very apparent in this year’s field. What you’re seeing is players are going to different places. They’re not gravitating towards one or two or three that’s at the top. It’s more spread out, and you’re seeing the impact of that,” Staley said.
That parity will likely continue to challenge UConn’s ability to dominate, and Auriemma himself has said that this year’s team is simply not as good as years past. And even if the Huskies beat the Gamecocks on Monday, as they are favored to do, Staley said she hopes to extend the series between the two programs.
USC will defeat Connecticut at some point — she’s confident in that.
“You’ve got to continue to play them. For us, we’re getting closer. I don’t think we’re far off. I know the results seem to look that way, but there are certain things that happen in the basketball game that we take and hopefully we can utilize in the next game we play them,” Staley said.
USC-UConn series history
Dec. 7, 2007: UConn 97, USC 39
Dec. 28, 2008: UConn 77, USC 48
Feb. 9, 2015: UConn 87, USC 62
Feb. 8, 2016: UConn 66, USC 54
Feb. 13, 2017: UConn 66, USC 55
Feb. 1 2018: UConn 83, USC 58
March 26, 2018: UConn 94, USC 65