For a second straight year, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team saw its hopes of an undefeated season and a national championship dashed in the Final Four, losing an overtime classic to Notre Dame on Friday night.
I won’t say Tuscaloosa feels the Huskies’ pain. Most Alabama fans, if they have a rooting interest at all, would probably like to see Mississippi State bring the title to the Southeastern Conference for a second straight year, following South Carolina’s win in 2017. But there is no other group more aligned with the absolute expectation to — a.) win the title and b.) beat everyone — than Alabama fans.
Every situation is different, but the similarity is obvious: both have won five national championships in the last nine seasons, although UConn’s run extends back a bit further than Alabama’s. Each has the coach recognized as the best in the respective sports, arguably the best ever.
That’s why I’ve never advocated the position that UConn was “bad” for women’s basketball, any more than Alabama is “bad” for college football. That argument does surface from time to time. Whether it is Nick Saban or Geno Auriemma, a coach’s job is to build the best program he can, not to nurture the future of the sport by throwing a few games as some sort of mercy offering. Saban, in particular, has prompted some changes in the rules (especially those regarding recruiting) and proceeded to adapt and succeed.
In the process, a mentality has been created — the teams should never lose. Alabama has never quite had a 111-game winning streak, of course, but the attitude is the same.
Winning championships is difficult. Doing so without a single loss along the way is both difficult and rare, and will grow rarer as time progresses. There’s an interesting argument that a loss along the way might be beneficial to a team, if only because it relieves a certain amount of pressure that team might feel.
There are absolutists who feel the other way. No coach, no fan, wants to lose. On the other hand, it is hard to look at Alabama’s just-concluded football season and say there weren’t some positives that derived from losing to Auburn and not playing Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. That is not the same as saying Alabama did not want to win, or that it was not a memorable victory for Auburn.
Perhaps UConn’s season would have ended the same way whether it lost a game or not. Sometimes, a game against a strong opponent simply comes down to that team making one play. That was the story of Alabama’s 2016 football season — a great team, but one that faced a Clemson team that made one more play in the end.
One can make the argument it was Saban’s “best” Alabama team, although history won’t remember it that way because the sole loss it suffered came at the wrong time. Madonna Thompson’s Sheldon State women’s basketball team suffered an eerily similar fate just a week ago.
The cycle will rewind for Alabama football again in a few months, and for UConn women’s basketball a few months afterward. Both brands are now so strong even a loss doesn’t make people acknowledge the possibility of another loss. Still, it will be a bitter offseason in Storrs.
The people in Tuscaloosa get it.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.