By Allie Burger
The history of the DePaul’s women’s basketball program can be summed up in a walk down a wide hallway on the second floor of McGrath-Phillips Arena. The corridor, linking the offices of longtime coach Doug Bruno to his assistants, is a testament to the success of one of America’s premiere college programs.
No inch of the wall is spared with photos of every team in the program’s history covering the space and evoking memories of where they have been–21 NCAA tournaments since 1982, including the last 14 years consecutively.
But DePaul is also part of a club among the NCAA women’s basketball elite, a group of winning programs that duel in the shadows of the giant that is Connecticut. How much does it take away from the rest of the pack? Bruno thinks it does not, but what of women’s basketball as a marketable product?
“The men had UCLA for a long time,” Bruno said. “But the women have UConn, and UConn is different and more special than anyone else.”
Coach Geno Auriemma’s team has won four consecutive NCAA championships and are on a 107-game winning-streak as the Huskies head into this year’s tournament again as the number one seed.
No other team has come close to toppling their dominance in recent years.
Last spring, before the 2016 NCAA tournament, FiveThirtyEight.com did a projection of the men’s and women’s brackets and determined each team’s chances of winning. Percentages were based in part on “a composite of computer power ratings, along with how the teams were ranked by the NCAA selection committee and their rank in preseason polls.”
In the men’s bracket, Kansas had the highest probability of 68 teams, with a 19 percent chance of winning the championship. By comparison, UConn had a 70 percent chance of winning the women’s tournament.
UConn’s continued success has set records for women’s college basketball media attention. On Feb. 13, ESPN2 aired the Huskies game against South Carolina as the program won its 100th consecutive game and according to ESPN’s public relations department, it was the highest-rated college basketball game this season, among both men’s and women’s programming. It was also the highest-rated women’s college basketball regular-season game since 2010.
Though the UConn women have shined a national spotlight on a sport that is consistently under-represented in the media landscape, there has been steady discussion over the last few years that their winning record may not be good for the popularity of women’s college basketball long-term.
“In any sport, it’s great from a competitive standpoint and from an interest standpoint to have an oligarchy as opposed to a monarchy,” said ESPN.com college basketball reporter Mechelle Voepel. “What I mean by that is if you have one team that is just so, so dominant for a long period of time, that can get frustrating. It can get old, it can lead people to sort of dismiss a sport.”
Voepel described the current structure of the men’s bracket as a more ideal leading of multiple powers. Teams like Kansas, Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina are synonymous with being powerhouses. But not one among them is consistently the best, which keeps competition levels even and engaging.
Sarah Toland, editorial director of Excelle Sports, a women’s sports media company, agreed that parity draws in fans.
“[Women’s basketball] fans feel like they know how the storyline is going to play out for the tournament,” Toland said. “That discourages [them] from watching because there’s not a chance for their home team, their alma mater, to advance or have a shot at the win. While it grabs the more national audience in some cases, it also alienates its traditional fan base.”
Others, however, believe that UConn’s winning era has been vital in growing the game and improving the level of play in women’s basketball. Bruno said he thinks it is the job of the other teams across the country now to rise to the standard the Huskies have set.
“What UConn is doing is great for women’s basketball,” Bruno said. “It’s our job, everybody else’s job to come up to them. It’s not their job to come back to us.”
Closing the competition gap involves a multi-part plan for programs like DePaul.
“There’s two ways to build a program,” Bruno said. “Get better players or get the players you’ve got better.”
One of Bruno’s star players, Big East pre-season player of the year Jessica January, is 0-3 against UConn and said she believes eventually the playing field will “level out.”
Size, though, is definitely an important factor in building teams that can contend, she said.
“We’re just as good of a team,” January said. “We have the same capabilities to play to that level, but when you have players who are all 6-2 and can play every single position, it’s really hard to be a 5-6 guard and go out there and guard every single one of them.”
UConn’s size and storyline may play out for a bit longer, but some believe the shift in power could happen sooner rather than later.
“Even UConn this year has shown that they have some vulnerability,” Bruno said. “The rest of the pool is all tightening up. It’s all getting better. The game is really in a good place and people just [need to] let the UConn factor be what it is, and look at how the programs underneath UConn this year are still really, really good.”
Women’s basketball culture is growing in various college programs across the country. South Carolina, for example, was a “non-entity,” Voepel said. Fast forward a decade, and the program has been the home attendance leader for Division I women’s basketball the last two seasons and could be again this year.
“That’s program-building from a grassroots level,” Voepel said. “You have to have it building in different parts of the country, there has to be a buy-in from the fans. That’s going to make people say, ‘Oh, I don’t just have to go to UConn to win a national championship. There’s other opportunities.’”
In the meantime, Bruno walks the hall outside his office, up above the court that was named after him, and relives the memories of players and triumphant moments that didn’t quite reach the peak.
He isn’t alone.
“[UConn] has set a standard,” Bruno said. “Let’s come up to that standard.”