Defining UConn's dominance

UConn is led by (from left) Gabby Williams, Napheesa Collier, Kia Nurse and Katie Lou Samuelson. Joe McNally for ESPN

Connecticut women's basketball should make us sorry for using the word "dominant" to describe anything else, ever.

The Huskies didn't just head into the NCAA tournament with 107 straight wins. They pasted 59 of those opponents by 40 or more points. They held one (SMU) to two points in a quarter. They defeated 10 ranked teams this season despite losing their three best players from last year to the top three picks of the WNBA draft.

UConn is simply on a different plane from the programs that should be its competitors, which makes it hard to evaluate the Huskies properly. They're gunning for their fifth consecutive national championship, so you might compare them to dynasties across sports and throughout time: UCLA from 1967 to 1973, or the 1957-66 Celtics. But UConn stands apart even from these supersquads.

You see, as more and better competitors enter any sport -- and as athletes, coaches, GMs and statheads all discover better ways to play the game -- average skill inevitably rises, and the best players and teams find it harder to surpass their surroundings. In fact, the average scoring margin for men's college basketball champions has been shrinking for at least five decades, since UCLA outscored its opponents by 22.6 points per game while winning seven national titles. The past five champions have had an average scoring margin of just 14.1 points per game.

Now, women's college basketball has seen a similar trend--if you exclude the UConn entries. If we look at the list of national champions since 1982, when the NCAA held its first women's tournament, and take away the years the Huskies won it all, this is what we would see: The highest scoring margin would take place in the very first year (33 points per game, by Louisiana Tech) and decrease slightly thereafter. And along the way, Tennessee's great 1998 team, with Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings showing the world new and exciting ways to attack the basket, would stick out as particularly dominant.

Instead, UConn's stat lines look like Babe Ruth as he outpaced himself in smacking home runs and awing the rest of baseball through the 1920s. The Rebecca Lobo-Kara Wolters Huskies outscored their opponents by a record 33.2 points per game in 1994-95. Then the Sue Bird-Swin Cash-Diana Taurasi edition outscored foes by 35.4 ppg in 2001-02. Then the Breanna Stewart-Morgan Tuck-Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis crew outscored opponents by 40.7 ppg in 2014-15. Advanced metrics tell a similar story: The Massey Ratings say the three best units since 1998 are UConn in 2013-14, UConn in 2015-16 and UConn in 2009-10. Sonny Moore's Power Ratings, which date to the 2004-05 season, say the three best are UConn in 2015-16, UConn in 2014-15 and UConn in 2009-10.

The Huskies have done this not in some bygone era when shorter, scrubbier athletes played in musty gyms and watched Bevo Francis put up 113 points. They've done it in a modern game that taps a wide, deep well of athletes. As participation rates of women in basketball have increased exponentially since the advent of Title IX in 1972, so has competitiveness: For every roster slot at D1 colleges, 87 girls in the U.S. play high school basketball, the second-highest ratio of any sport (behind men's basketball), as Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight wrote in 2015. Morris found that basketball players constitute 20 percent of the athletes who play top women's sports, versus 11 percent for men. He wrote, "College women's basketball is likely to be receiving a very large share of total female athletic talent."

Of course, the best players in men's hoops often leave for the NBA after just one season, so with their rebuilding cycles accelerated, it's even harder for men's teams to win consecutive titles. UConn, by contrast, got to enjoy Lobo and Maya Moore and Stewart for four seasons apiece.

But come on. Like any other coach, Geno Auriemma can offer only 15 scholarships per roster, and he can play only five athletes at a time. And more talent overall in women's basketball means better athletes dispersed around the college game and a more level playing field for all. The fifth- or 32nd-best women's teams in the country today are certainly better than they were 20 years ago. Even still, UConn remains exceptional. The Huskies have repeatedly crowbarred open the gap between themselves and everybody else at a time when it should have been closing, much like Michael Jordan's Bulls or Tom Brady's Patriots. These, in fact, are UConn's true peers.

Dominant doesn't mean invincible, however. Maybe the Huskies will win 253 straight, break the record set by Trinity College men's squash for consecutive victories in any college sport and leave no doubt about their historical standing. But UConn's great run will probably end sometime sooner than that. In fact, the numbers say a potential national championship game against Baylor in April looms as a serious danger for Katie Lou Samuelson, Gabby Williams & Co.

Baylor and UConn are neck and neck when it comes to the margins by which they outscore opponents this season (32.8 points for UConn, 32.5 for Baylor). After adjusting for UConn's stronger schedule, Massey and Moore each see the Huskies as the better team, but by just a handful of points. UConn did beat Baylor by 11 at Storrs in November but probably won't be able to count on the Bears committing another 17 turnovers if they meet again. Further, offensive rebounding is extremely important for an underdog; it creates second chances and stops an opponent from going on runs. And Baylor grabs 46.8 percent of its own missed shots (through March 7), the highest rate in the country, according to NatStat.

A rematch could be interesting. Because even the greatest teams sometimes have to earn, not just demonstrate, their dominance.