NCAAW: UConn ruled the decade. Who will roar into the 2020s?

Cassandra Negley
Yahoo Sports Contributor
Breanna Stewart, left, Moriah Jefferson, center, and Morgan Tuck, right, won the 2016 NCAA title and became the top three picks in the WNBA draft to lead an incredible UConn decade. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Connecticut officially ended the decade where it began when the Associated Press Top 25 poll kept the Huskies at No. 1 overall on Monday.

It was expected because UConn moved into the top spot last week, the third No. 1 team this season, and was idle through the holidays. But it’s also symbolic of the hold the Huskies had on women’s basketball. Some big games in the SEC and ACC on Thursday will help set the stage for this season and might offer a hint for the next decade.

UConn owned the 2010s

The Huskies dominated the decade and are one of the greatest teams of any sport. They won 95.5 percent of their games over the past 10 calendar years, going 365-17. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, they’ve lost only six games.

Of those 17 losses, five came in the Final Four with all but one against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have nine wins against UConn this decade, including three in each of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.

Baylor has three wins against UConn, Stanford has two and Mississippi St., St. John’s and Louisville have one each. (Mississippi State broke UConn’s 111-game winning streak in the Final Four in 2017.)

A not-at-all comprehensive list of UConn’s decade:

  • Five NCAA championships (of 11 won by the Huskies overall), including four consecutive from 2013-2016.

  • 10 Final Four appearances — that’s every year this decade (of 20 total, the most in NCAA history).

  • 16 conference regular-season and tournament championships (between Big East and American Athletic Conference).

  • Two record-setting consecutive win streaks — first 90 games, then 111 (2014-17).

  • Three undefeated seasons (2009-10, 2013-14, 2015-16).

  • All 194 weeks in the AP top five and No. 1 in 111 of them (more than half the decade they were voted the top team at the time).

  • Three No. 1 WNBA draft picks (Tina Charles ’10, Maya Moore ’11, Breanna Stewart ’16).

  • Top three draft picks in 2016 (Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, Morgan Tuck).

  • 12 first-round draft picks of 120 total (Notre Dame had nine first-rounders).

UConn, for the longest time, was women’s college basketball just as Tennessee ran the sport in the late 1980s and ’90s. It was expected they’d win it all every single year. Coach Geno Auriemma’s recruiting classes are the best year in and year out, and All-America players go on to exquisite careers in the WNBA.

UConn set, and is still setting, the standard in the women’s game. The next decade might be the time more programs level up to it.

What can we expect from the 2020s?

Parity. At least we can hope so at the top. It’s looking that way already (though there is a ways to go in parity in Division I overall).

The last four seasons have seen four different teams win it all: Connecticut, South Carolina, Notre Dame and Baylor. That hasn’t happened since 2004-07, when it was Connecticut, Baylor, Maryland and Tennessee.

We all see the UConn pattern here. The last time four have won it all that didn’t include the Huskies, which could happen again this April, was from 1991-94: Tennessee, Stanford, Texas Tech and North Carolina (UConn won it in 1995).

Twice it’s been five different teams in a row, first in the mid-1980s and then again in the early 1990s.

In October, Daniel Wilco analyzed the AP preseason polls for the NCAA to see if it really predicted success in the regular season. He found it did, with 175 teams of 250 this decade keeping their Top 25 ranking from the preseason to the end of the season.

From Wilco:

But the real feat of premonition can be seen at the top. Of the 100 teams that started the season in the Top 10, 97 finished the year ranked, and 73 of those were still in the Top 10.

With that in mind, the AP top 10 to close the 2010s gives a good indicator that a new champion could be crowned this April. And that may extend through the decade.

Everyone knows of Oregon, the favorite to win the title with Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally, Ruthy Heberd, Minyon Moore and a strong supporting cast beyond that. The Ducks, No. 2 at the moment, have never played in the title game.

Neither have four of the other teams ranked in the top 10 right now.

No. 3 Oregon State (12-0) has its highest ranking and best start in program history and has never made the finale. The Beavers, Ducks and Stanford Cardinal will play likely the must-watch games of the regular season in Pac-12 play.

Stanford, ranked fifth, has two titles (1990, ’92) and four final appearances (losses to Tennessee in 2008, UConn in 2010). Along with USC in ’83 and ’84, it’s the only Pac-12 teams to win it.

No. 4 South Carolina won its first title in its first title-game appearance in 2017, and No. 6 Baylor has three titles in 2019, ’12, and ’05. No. 7 Louisville has lost to UConn in both championships it’s played (’09, ’13).

Then there’s No. 8 Florida State, No. 9 North Carolina State and No. 10 UCLA. Florida State and UCLA have not made it past the quarterfinals, while N.C. State has made the Final Four once. Any of these teams could be fighting for a championship in 2020 and none had been there before.

Cheers.

Cox returns for Baylor

All-American Lauren Cox made her return for the No. 6 Baylor Bears (10-1) on Monday, lifting their prospects going into Big 12 play. Cox, who left the 2019 national championship game with a sprained MCL that did not need surgery, missed more than seven weeks with a stress reaction in the second metatarsal on her right foot.

In the Bears’ first two games of the year — blowouts of 68 and 74 points — she had double-doubles while averaging 21.5 minutes. In a 97-47 victory over Morehead State on Monday, the 6-foot-4 senior had 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, plus six rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots in 22 minutes.

She was certainly missed. Sophomore forward NaLyssa Smith said things feel “a lot more smooth” and “normal” when Cox is out there, per the Associated Press.

“Lauren makes us a better basketball team because of her experience, because of her ability to pass the ball. She just has knowledge. She sees things develop before they develop," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “She's not a polished product right now, but who expects that when you sit out that long.”

Mulkey said Cox was cleared for their Dec. 18 game against Arkansas State, but decided to give her the extra rest through the holiday break. It comes at the right time for Baylor, which starts Big 12 play at Oklahoma (7-5) on Saturday.

Next week the Bears travel to play the Huskies in Hartford as a potential preview of the Final Four.

What to watch before the weekend

Before you ring in the new decade, check out Ohio State at No. 24 Minnesota on Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET. Minnesota moved back into the rankings this week as only three spots changed. The Gophers have an 11-game winning streak after enduring a season-opening loss that tested the squad just as head coach Lindsay Whalen had hoped. Ohio State has also played a top-tier schedule, defeating Louisville but falling by 11 to UConn.

The biggest matchups are Thursday and will be televised on conference networks.

No. 13 Kentucky at No. 4 South Carolina

Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on SEC Network

Kentucky holds the 34-31 series advantage in what should be an evenly matched game of SEC title hopefuls. Both are holding opponents to fewer than 50 points per game, with the Gamecocks boosted by a nation-leading block rate of 18.6 percent, per Her Hoops Stats.

No. 8 Florida State at Syracuse

Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on ACC Network

Syracuse’s .500 record is deceptive given their own non-conference schedule against ranked opponents. In the ACC opener over the weekend, the Orange nearly upset No. 7 Louisville. If Syracuse can get its shooting going and secure rebounds, it is a challenge for any ACC opponent.

Florida State comes into the game with a 13-game winning streak.

No. 11 Texas A&M at No. 20 Arkansas

Thursday at 9 p.m. on SEC Network

Arkansas is 22-11 all-time vs. Texas A&M. The Aggies won last year’s regular-season matchup in March, 66-53, but lost six days later in the SEC tournament semifinals to Arkansas, 58-51.

Aggies guard Chennedy Carter scored 24 points in the first matchup, but missed all of the conference tournament due to a fracture in her finger suffered in that season finale. Arkansas will be a tough matchup for Texas A&M; the key for the Aggies will be another big performance from Carter. The 5-foot-7 junior is averaging 22.8 points per game, fifth best in the nation.

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