The Unstoppable UConn Huskies
NEAL CONAN, host:
In the last two victories and its record 74-game winning streak, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team crushed its first two opponents in the NCAA Basketball Tournament and seems set to roll to a second consecutive undefeated season.
As a UConn alum, former Player of the Year there and point guard on the Huskies' first national championship team, Jen Rizzotti is entitled to a little pride. As head coach for 11 years now of the women's basketball team at the University of Hartford, she's also allowed a little envy.
What makes Connecticut so good? Why is it so hard to compete? Is such dominance good for the women's game? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jen Rizzotti joins us now from the campus of the University of Hartford. Her Hawks took a tough loss to LSU in the first round of the tournament this year. And Coach, it's good of you to be with us today.
Ms. JEN RIZZOTTI (Head Coach, Women's Basketball, University of Hartford): Yeah. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And I wonder, do you - I know your team was knocked out. Do you continue to look at the tournament?
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Oh, of course. We - I am a student of the game still and I like to watch and learn and I like to, you know, be a part of the excitement. I mean, you always want to be in it when you're a coach or you're a player. But it's just as fun to watch and see the excitement on people's faces when they win, and of course for me, to follow my former team.
CONAN: And are you as awestruck by their accomplishments as many around the country are?
Ms. RIZZOTTI: I don't know if awestruck is the right word. I mean, I'm proud of them. And I, you know, it doesn't surprise me. Obviously, you know, having played there and knowing the attention to detail that they pay and how hard they push their players to work and the standard of excellence, it's not surprising to me that, you know, they've been able to dominate the way that they have. It's been really fun to watch.
CONAN: Why is it that in an atmosphere where you have many more women's college basketball programs who are competitive and work hard at recruiting and work hard at improving the game and paying attention to those kinds of details that one team can dominate so thoroughly?
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Well, you know, it helps when you have the two best players in the country...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. RIZZOTTI: ...certainly. But you know, I think that Geno Auriemma and his staff do a really good job of preparation. And I think that, you know, the teams that face them one time in a year or one time every couple of years, they're really hard to beat because they're well-coached and they always have a good game plan and they're usually working with, you know, four or five of the best players in the country.
So, you know, I think that there's teams in the Big East that over time - you know, Rutgers is an example of a team that occasionally gave them problems when there's a little bit more familiarity and maybe not so much awe by the players when they step on the floor with them. But, you know, I just think that their reputation is so grand and they play with such a high level of intensity and work ethic that when you face them one time a year, they're just really hard to beat on that given night.
CONAN: You not only went to the University of Connecticut, you grew up in the state of Connecticut.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yes.
CONAN: You now coach in the capital of the state of Connecticut. I wonder, is it tough to recruit against the University of Connecticut?
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Well, we don't really recruit against Connecticut. You know, I think that, you know, programs, you know, at that level of Connecticut and Duke and Tennessee and Stanford, they're usually working with a pretty small pool of players that are narrowed in, focused in on playing at the very, very top level. So we're kind of in the group of the next maybe 40 or 50 programs in the country that are fighting for the next group of players.
So we don't have - we haven't had any recruiting battles against them. You know, they're usually a couple of years - honestly, they're usually a couple of years ahead of us in their recruiting.
CONAN: So they're looking at - looking at players who they start to detect when they're freshmen, sophomores in high school.
Ms. RIZZOTT: Yeah. I mean, you know, right now, I know they at least have one verbal commitment from a junior in high school. We're just starting the process with juniors. So they've kind of already focused in on the juniors, the sophomores, and even occasionally, the freshmen, because usually kids at that level are - distinguish themselves at a very early age. And when they're that good, UConn and Tennessee and all those big name programs, they know about them when they're freshmen in high school.
So we kind of, you know, come in a few years later after other kids have developed and try to, you know, find those diamonds in the rough. So it's a little bit different process for us.
CONAN: Do you schedule the University of Connecticut?
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Of course. Yes. We've been on their schedule for five years.
CONAN: And what's that like?
Ms. RIZZOTTI: It's different. I mean, it's, you know, I think it's a great experience for our kids. We play the game in downtown Hartford at the Xcel Center and there's usually about 10 to 15,000 people there. So it's a nice atmosphere. And honestly, not everybody's rooting against us, so that's pretty good. But it's tough. I mean, it's a good chance for me to show our kids what it takes to play at that level.
And when we have success, whether it's for a five-minute stretch or for a half, we know we're doing it against the best in the country. And we're always trying to measure ourselves against the best competition because we want to try to play at that level. So I think it's a good experience. It's a win-win situation for us.
CONAN: Except in the - on the scoreboard.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: What's your relationship like with Coach Auriemma?
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Oh, it's still great. You know, he remains pretty close with most of his former players. And, you know, we can have the relationship that we want with him. So you know, he follows my season, as I do his, and is always one of the first to congratulate me on anything that we do as a program that's new, like this year when we got into the top 25 for the first time or we made the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.
So you know, we're still, you know, on really good terms. I, you know, have learned - I haven't learned more than any - from anyone else in my career than from him. So he's still a mentor to me and still somebody who I've formed my coaching philosophy around, what he teaches and what he taught me when I was at college.
CONAN: He seemed to have - be somewhat amused by the fact that you got two technical fouls and were thrown out of your last game.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yeah. He doesn't take - you know, he doesn't miss chances to poke fun either. So that's his personality.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. RIZZOTTI: You know, of course I wasn't surprised that he had something wise to say.
CONAN: As you look at the women's game, you say you're - well, you made the top 25, you made the tournament this year as an at-large, and those are great accomplishments. But do you expect that kind of balance to return, where Stanford and Tennessee, and of course the great coach there, Pat Summitt, are going to be competitive again?
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, those - you know, women's basketball, those are the programs that, you know, these high school stars want to be a part of. They want to play, you know, for great programs and great coaches, places that they can go to the Final Four, win national championships and play in the WNBA. So if you're a, you know, a rising star in middle school and high school, then those are the schools you're going to hear about.
And you know, Pat Summitt and Tara VanDerveer and, you know, Sherri Coale out at Oklahoma, Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame, I mean these are coaches who a lot of these high school kids already know and they want to play for. So you know...
CONAN: But just a couple of years ago, as you mentioned, Rutgers had a great team...
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yup.
CONAN: ...and a couple of great runs. The University of Maryland won a championship a few years ago. It seemed as if the days when the Delta States and even the Montclaire States and the Connecticuts and the Tennessees would dominate the game, where it was going to be a much more open thing like the men's game.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yeah. I think that there are definitely years where there is some parity. You know, Rutgers is able to attract some of the great talents in the country - University of Maryland. And a lot of it has to do with the leagues that they play in and the facilities that they have.
You know, when you have a place like Maryland that plays in the Comcast Center and has a very well-known men's program, then you're going to usually tend to have, you know, women very aware of that program and what they've accomplished.
So I do think that, you know, there has been parity. I think that UConn and Tennessee have probably separated themselves in the amount of national championships that they've won. But in the years that they're not winning championships, you'll see the Michigan State gets to a Final Four, the Baylor won you know, won a national championship one year.
So there are some other upstart programs that are starting to attract some of the best recruits in the country.
CONAN: And would that be - as much as you take pride in your alma mater's accomplishments, would that be better for the game?
Ms. RIZZOTTI: You know, I think you can look at it both - two ways. I mean, I don't think that you can get as much attention to women's basketball as UConn is - what they're doing for the sport right now, the record that they're setting and the, you know, perfection that they're playing at. I think you have everybody talking about them, including last night during an NIT game I heard the commentators talking about the UConn women during a men's game.
So what they're doing, I think, is bringing a lot of positive attention to the sport. So it can't be bad when you have men's commentators talking about women's basketball.
However, I do think if you look at an average fan, an average sports fan, if you turn on the NCAA tournament, you want competitive games. And there's been a lot of them, not when you have UConn on the other side of the, you know, court, but as far as, you know, a lot of the first round games and second round games have been pretty competitive so far. So I do think the average fan wants to see a little more parity and a lot of - a little more competitiveness. But I think what UConn has done for the attention of women's basketball in general has been great.
CONAN: If you'd like to talk with Jen Rizzotti about women's basketball and the University of Connecticut Huskies, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com.
And you were talking about perfection. The second - the first half of the game the other night, I think they went into the locker room 43 points ahead and -with a shooting percentage of like 78 percent.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yeah. It was - I think that their comments after the game was that that was about as good as they can play. They're just on a roll right now. They're at a point where they're playing with a lot of confidence, and this is their time of year.
It's amazing to me that, you know, a team can keep their focus for a whole season when all - not all they really care about, but what they're really playing for is a national championship, and it's a long time to wait for these last six games. And then those last six games finally get there and you just can't wait to get on the court. And I think that you've seen that anxiety, that anticipation and that excitement in the UConn team if you've watched them play in the first two-round games.
CONAN: And watching them is just - well, I can say it, I didn't go to the University of Connecticut. They are awesome. Nevertheless, the television ratings for the tournament aren't great.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: They aren't great, is what you said?
CONAN: Are not, yeah.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yeah. Well, you know, I don't know what the answer to that is. I, you know, I do think that it would be nice if, you know, there was this - a bigger commitment to women's basketball in every school like there is at Connecticut or at a Hartford or at some of these other programs that are really putting their women's program to the forefront. But I - you know, unfortunately I can't say that there is. And you know, we need to do - continue to really work hard to find ways to market our product.
We're not men's basketball. We're different. But we're special in our own way. And, you know, hopefully, you know, there's a lot of people out there working hard to continue to market women's basketball, to showcase all these great talents, to showcase kids like Maya Moore, who is an outstanding student athlete, and that's going to attract fans. And that needs to happen, you know, from the college level all the way up through the WNBA.
CONAN: We're talking with Jen Rizzotti, the unforgettable point guard on Connecticut's first national championship team back in 1995, for the last 11 years coach of the Hartford Hawks. And she joins us on the line from the campus there by phone. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Dennis on the line. Dennis with us from Bend, Oregon.
DENNIS (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Dennis. You're on the air. Go ahead.
DENNIS: I just want to make a comment that for quite some number of years, Coach John Wooden has been saying the women's game is actually a better brand of basketball than the men's. And I encourage anybody who has the opportunity to go to a women's college game to take it in. Much better team game and individual skills are have to be better because all that jumping ability isn't there.
CONAN: Well, there is that jumping ability. They just don't jump as high.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Jen Rizzotti, the fundamentals, though, a lot of people say the women are more interesting to watch because of their - the difference in athleticism.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yeah. Well, I think if you're really a true fan of the game and you watched men's basketball 20, 25 years ago, you would see more similarities in the women's game now to that product, because there's more - you have to rely more on passing and teamwork and setting a good screen and having the skill to finish a shot around the basket, whereas on the men's side, if you're 6'10", you don't really need to have a lot of skill to be able to dunk the basketball. So I think that's, you know, what John Wooden is saying, is that if you're looking at basketball play as a purest, you know, you can't find a better example of that than if you were to turn on a UConn women's game.
And unfortunately, not all women's basketball is up to that level. And I think it needs to be. I think we need to challenge ourselves to be better and to be more fundamental and be more fun to watch, because we play at a higher level. And it's not - again, it's got to be a commitment to the women's programs around the country, to continue to hire good coaches and have coaches find good players and do a good job at developing them. So it is fun to watch.
CONAN: Dennis, thanks for the call. Let's go next to Robert. Robert's with us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
ROBERT (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. But actually, my call, I think you just kind of answered it, which was, I was wondering what seems to be lost going from women's college basketball to the WNBA in terms of interest. Some of my male friends say simply, you know, they just can't dunk the ball and it's no fun to watch if that's not going on.
CONAN: Well, one or two can. But Jen Rizzotti, you also played, what, six years in the WNBA?
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yeah. I played five summers in the WNBA. And I do think that playing in the summertime definitely has an effect on the viewership for WNBA, because to be honest with you, I'll catch a lot more college games over the winter than I will WNBA games in the summer. A lot of people are just doing a lot of different things and are outside and are just not as interested in watching TV in the summertime. But I think that the product is good. I just think that maybe colleges do a little bit better job of marketing.
And you know, we have a great package on ESPN for women's basketball at the college level and I just don't think it's as good in the WNBA. So there just doesn't seem to be as much marketing as there should be, because the women in the WNBA are phenomenal. I mean, if you turn on and watch a Candace Parker, who can dunk, in the flow of the game, or you watch a Diana Taurasi, or you know, you watch some of these young kids that have come into the game, I mean, they're as good as a lot of men. Maybe not the NBA players, but I think the stigma is men - a lot of men think that they're better than WNBA players. And if you actually watch a game, you would know that that's not true.
ROBERT: For sure.
CONAN: Robert, thanks very much.
ROBERT: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we have time for one more. And this is Alicia(ph). Alicia calling us from Tempe.
ALICIA (Caller): Yes. My name is Alicia. Actually, I grew up in New Fairfield, Connecticut, which was the same town I believe Jen was from.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yup.
ALICIA: And I remember as a kid, I was in middle school going to some practice, and the gym, the high school gym would just be packed with people watching you play. And I always thought, what's going on in there? And as I got older, I realized who it was, and I thought - wow. And I ended up going to UConn myself. My brother and I graduated from there. And just - the cutthroat fans that are for basketball there are just nowhere I've seen anywhere else in the country. And especially the surrounding communities really get into women's basketball. I mean, I moved out here to Arizona, I'm here with my family, and my dad still has DVRs of the UConn women games because he has to watch them. So I just think I love how a university sports team has an impact on surrounding communities. People who maybe never even went to UConn...
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Yeah.
ALICIA: ...really can bring not only just the tiny town of (unintelligible) together but the whole state of Connecticut and more than that too.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: Well, I definitely think that the size of the state helps. You know, it kind of allows everybody from the state to travel and see the UConn women play within a, you know, hour and a half. And I think that the absence of professional sports in Connecticut allows people to really embrace the college team. So it's a great state to play women's basketball. And even at the University of Hartford, we have a great following compared to a lot of major programs around the country.
We draw a lot more than a lot of Big East schools draw. So you know, again, it helps when you win. But I think that the fans here in Connecticut are very educated and very passionate about their women and they will go anywhere to follow them and watch them play.
CONAN: Alicia, thanks very much for the call. And Jen Rizzotti, thanks very much for your time. And good luck to the Hawks.
Ms. RIZZOTTI: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: Jen Rizzotti, head coach of the women's basketball at the University of Hartford.