On Selection Monday, Connecticut star forward Napheesa Collier had one important request for her boyfriend, family, and friends: don’t ruin this for me. They all saw how ESPN accidentally revealed the NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket in the background of a men’s Bracketology show, well before it was supposed to be presented to the public. But Collier, a senior, wanted to watch her final bracket reveal in real time, rather than having it be spoiled for her.
That meant she was four hours late to the news that already made most others around the team fume. Despite a 30-2 record, with the only losses coming on the road to No. 1 seeds Baylor and Louisville, UConn, the dominant program of the last decade and a half, was a No. 2 seed.
“I was mad,” said Collier, UConn’s leading scorer and rebounder at 21 and 11 per game, in an interview with SB Nation. “I still don’t understand what the reasoning was.”
Here was America’s greatest modern basketball dynasty, dubbed by some as “so good that they were ruining the competitive balance of the sport,” feeling overlooked. Through the Breanna Stewart era (2012-16), which featured four straight championships, and the Maya Moore era (2007-11), which saw two, UConn had always been on top. Now, the Huskies were forced to reckon with unfamiliar emotions. In their eyes, they were snubbed. Underappreciated. They were an underdog.
“We’re still going to prepare the same and play as hard as we can,” Collier said. “It’s just disrespectful to us and lit a fire under us.”
Legendary head coach Geno Auriemma suggested UConn’s historic dominance was actually used against the current team.
“For us to be a No. 1 seed every year, we almost have to go undefeated,” he said after the reveal. “Who else would be knocked down when their only two losses are to No. 1 seeds on the road?”
Whether one feels the Huskies’ gripe is legitimate or a case of UConn exceptionalism — the idea that they should get special treatment simply by virtue of being UConn — Monday night was raw. The Huskies’ second-best player, senior Katie Lou Samuelson, posted a quote meme on Instagram, which Collier shared too. It read: “Keep your head high, and your middle finger higher.”
“They said something about how our conference wasn’t as strong, but it hasn’t been for the other years either,” Collier said, referring to UConn’s 2013 transition from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference. “It’s the same conference we’ve been in for the last couple of years.”
Rhonda Lundin Bennett, the chair of the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, explained her team’s decision to slot Louisville over Connecticut for the Final No. 1 seed.
“The things that were the deciding factors for us were strength of schedule, as well as strength of their conference. And our committee watched UConn, as well as all those teams, a lot and really just thought that playing down the stretch, the teams that made it onto the 1 line were stronger.”
If UConn needed any more motivation, they got it three days later when Collier, who averaged 21 points and nearly 11 rebounds per game, learned she’d been snubbed again. Four finalists were named for the Naismith Player of the Year honors, and she wasn’t one of them.
“Honestly, I’m not one of the players who talks about themselves and thinks I’m the best thing since sliced bread,” Collier said. “But I was also really confused why I wasn’t on the list. I legitimately want to know the reasoning of why because I don’t know what else I could’ve done to get on the list.”
Whereas Collier was bemused, Auriemma was enraged.
“Who votes on these awards, anyway?” Auriemma asked, according to the Hartford Courant. “She’s not a finalist for the Naismith award? I mean, who voted for that? Dr. Naismith is rolling over in his grave. He is. He never envisioned that somebody that good would be left off his list.
“I feel bad for [Collier]. If she played at any other school, she’d be the front-runner with the numbers she puts up. But she plays at Connecticut so what are you going to do?”
Is UConn’s dominance of the sport so routine that it actually works against them, or are we starting to see the seeds of UConn exceptionalism? Are other teams jealous of UConn’s success, as Collier suggested?
“UConn is given a lot of media attention, and I’m sure other schools are tired of that,” Collier said. “Clearly, based on everything this year, a lot of people are tired of it. But what are ya gonna do?”
Regardless, the script is flipped for the Huskies, who advanced to the Final Four with an 80-73 win over No. 1 seed Louisville. Though their seeding surprise was only cosmetic — had the Huskies been the No. 4 overall team in the eyes of the committee, they’d have been a No. 1 seed in the same region — this means a lot to them. Auriemma’s 2019 recruiting class isn’t ranked in ESPN’s top-20, far below rivals like South Carolina (No. 1), Tennessee (No. 9), Notre Dame (No. 11), and Louisville (No. 15). UConn’s only 2019 recruit is ranked just No. 33 overall by ESPN.
In the bigger picture, this could be a turning point in college basketball. Maybe the rest of the country is catching up — or has even outrun UConn already.
Or maybe, Collier, Samuelson, and the two-loss Huskies will make everyone look foolish and overcome the great 2-seed scare. They’ve already knocked off the top seed in their region. The next two weeks have implications far beyond the Huskies’ own motivational tactics.