Connecticut is two victories away from a third consecutive women's national championship. But there's a Tennessee twist to the Final Four storyline.
The Huskies aren't just on the brink of another national title. They're on the verge of catching UT.
Heavens to Holdsclaw! Who could have imagined such a development 13 years ago when the Lady Vols won their third consecutive national championship?
Back then, the national championship scoreboard read: UT 6, UConn 1. On Final Four Sunday, the updated score: UT 8, UConn 7.
There's nothing the Lady Vols can do to thwart their pursuer, except pull really hard for the team that knocked them out of the NCAA tournament last Monday night. If Notre Dame lets them down, pull just as hard for the winner of the Stanford-Texas A&M game to upend the Huskies.
Win or lose in the Final Four, UConn already has passed the Lady Vols as women's basketball's preeminent program by winning six of the last 11 national championships. So how does UT regain the momentum in what long has been a two-way battle for supremacy in the sport?
My first recommendation: Put Connecticut back on the schedule.
My second recommendation: Put it back on the schedule twice a season, just like in 2000.
Don't do it in the best interest of women's basketball, which has never come up with anything close to a comparable rivalry. Do it in the best interest of Lady Vols basketball.
UT canceled the series with UConn after the 2006-07 season and also turned in the Huskies to the NCAA for alleged violations, which included their recruitment of Maya Moore.
Since then, UConn has gotten nothing more than a slap on the wrist for a secondary NCAA violation, and Moore has emerged as the game's best player. Her career will end with this Final Four. It's time to move on.
And it's time to realize that UT is better off with UConn than without it.
Go back to last Monday's 73-59 loss to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, after which Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said with considerable conviction: "We got exposed." Then, she added a couple of words: "We definitely got exposed defensively."
Coach Geno Auriemma's UConn teams are renowned for their ability to pick apart a flawed defense. If the Lady Vols had played the Huskies in January or early February as they once did, their shortcomings would have been illuminated long before they were one game shy of the Final Four.
That could have been a catalyst for improvement. Instead, the Lady Vols developed a false sense of team worth by breezing through a conference that isn't what it used to be. Just four SEC teams made the NCAA tournament, and only UT made it to the Elite Eight. None of the conference's five WNIT entries advanced beyond the quarterfinals.
So what if the Lady Vols went 19-0 against conference teams in winning both the regular-season championship and the SEC tournament? Their record against the Big East was more revealing. They were 3-2, including double-digit losses to Georgetown and Notre Dame and a hard-fought 79-70 victory over Marquette at Thompson-Boling Arena in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The Lady Vols should be even better next season. And their strengths will be magnified by their overmatched conference competition.
You want to know your strengths? Play in the SEC.
You want to know your weaknesses? Play UConn.