When I was at ESPN, I knew I was living in a parallel universe when, on Super Bowl Sunday (one that the Patriots were not involved), I opened the sports section of the Hartford Courant and saw the lead story was not football, but UConn women's basketball.
That's when it hit me that the Huskies were not just a sport in that part of the world—they were a religion.
Not, as Seinfeld would say, that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, if you don't have dynasties, you can't have conflict. If there's no Goliath, you can't root for David. So, it has been, for UConn and Tennessee, the dominant two programs in women's college basketball.
Their rivalry made their weekend games must-see TV on the networks. Even after the two teams ended their annual matchup, that didn't end the drama of watching UConn run the table through the tournament this past season, while Tennessee struggled and stumbled into, and out of, the postseason.
So who might next challenge UConn for the hearts and minds of women's basketball fans? Enter the University of Cincinnati. Why do I think a team that won only three games in the regular season against BIG EAST opponents this past year would emerge as a challenge to mighty UConn? The answer is the Bearcats' new coach, Jamelle Elliott.
This may be Jamelle's first shot at the head coaching position, but she brings with her the aura, the tradition, heck, even the smells of being around a winner. No one can deny her pedigree comes from not only playing the game at the highest level possible (as a former UConn player) but learning the game as an assistant coach for 12 at the side of Gino Auriemma.
She even received her former coach's blessing as she accepted the Bearcats job, as Gino flew in for her news conference in Cincinnati.
Does that guarantee her a winning season her first time out? Of course not. What it does guarantee is the University of Cincinnati is back in the recruiting game, especially right in its own back yard. Local basketball talent that once went to UT or UConn, now have to consider staying home to play at UC.
If you're an 18-year old basketball superstar, would you want to move hundreds of miles away, or do you want to perform in front of friends and family while facing the best competition in college basketball? Now these players have a viable option to stay home and still play on a national stage.
And that's where the rivalry comes in. Jamelle will be able to look parents and players in the eye and say, "I know what it takes to win. I've won national championships. I can change the culture of this program and make it relevant again.
We'll be on television, especially when we play UConn. And in the process, you can come see your daughter play in person, every night that we're home." Compelling argument to play your college basketball for the Red and Black.
Jamelle's got a solid foundation on the court, with Kahla Roudebush, Michelle Jones and the rehabbing Shelly Bellman coming back. They're playing for their third coach in their brief college careers--never an easy transition—but I think this one will make their decision to come to UCall worth while.
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