Women's rivals sitting one out

Tennessee and UConn won't play in regular season, but that just adds fuel to the fire.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 22, 2007

This is one in an occasional series on the history, personalities and issues in women's college basketball leading to the Final Four in April in Tampa.

Top-ranked Tennessee and No. 2 Connecticut are in California for road games this weekend, but for the first time in 13 seasons, that's the closest they'll come to playing each other.

What is easily the best rivalry in women's college basketball was canceled in the summer by Vols coach Pat Summitt, whose defending national champions are off to a 10-0 start and face No. 5 Stanford today.

"I'm asked about (not playing UConn) a lot, but it is what it is. I made the decision," Summitt said by phone Thursday night. "It certainly wasn't the most popular decision, especially with the media and fans."

The schools had met every year since 1994-95, with Connecticut holding a 13-9 edge but Tennessee winning the past three meetings. From 1995 to 2004, the perennial powers met seven times in the Final Four, including five times in championship games, with the Huskies winning four of those ultimate showdowns.

Connecticut hasn't been to a Final Four since beating Tennessee for the 2004 title, and coach Geno Auriemma publicly criticized Summitt for not continuing the series, suggesting she let their personal feud claim what has been their sport's calling card: Fans who don't know anything about women's college basketball can appreciate a UT-UConn game.

"I think she should just come out and say she's not playing us because she hates my guts," Auriemma told the Hartford Courant before the season. "And I think people would buy that. Then everyone would be happy. She should just say he's a dope, a smart---, and then everyone could say that they agree with her."

The undisputed powers -- they're the top two teams on every ballot in the Associated Press and coaches' polls -- aren't playing each other, but they're loading up on highly ranked opponents. Tennessee has already beaten top-10 teams in Oklahoma and North Carolina; UConn has wins against Stanford and Duke.

Women's basketball coaches are much more likely to stage those kinds of nonconference battles than their men's counterparts. Already this season, there have been 10 games pitting women's top-10 teams against each other; on the men's side, there has been just one (Texas' upset of UCLA), though there are two more today in Memphis-Georgetown and Texas-Michigan State.

Summitt said she has always sought the best competition, even when her team wasn't one of those teams. Early in her coaching career, she lined up games with Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion and Texas, then the nation's elite programs.

"It brings more exposure to women's basketball when we do that," Summitt said. "It's part of getting your own team ready and seasoned for the postseason. When you have games like Stanford-Tennessee, you stand a good chance of having a game on TV."

If there's an upside to not having Tennessee-Connecticut as a staple of January basketball, it's that it could bring an even more intense spotlight if the two teams meet in Tampa during April's Final Four.

"I can tell you right now, I would expect us to play each other in the postseason," Summitt said. "That'd be what a lot of women's basketball fans would want to see. I'd like it, too, because that means we're in the Final Four."