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Geno is right ... his team is fragile

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published February 21. 2014 4:00AM

A year ago this week, Baylor University defeated the UConn women, somewhat convincingly, at the XL Center. This was after the Bears had roughed up Notre Dame on the road, too, leaving little doubt the consensus to win the national championship.

But a funny thing happened to the limo on the way to the coronation. There was a flat at a Shoney's (or in this case Shoni's) flushing a season of expectation.

The point: Judgments in January and even February are often bigger on blather than accuracy.

Still, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis' bout with mononucleosis has imperiled her effectiveness for the rest of the season. Not one doctor you can name - Zhivago, Oz, Jekyll, Strangelove - can say for sure whether she'll approach full strength even into March and April. The rhythms of mononucleosis are quite subjective.

Add Morgan Tuck's injury to a roster whose talent dwarfs its depth and you arrive here:

Notre Dame has emerged as the favorite to win it all.

That's undefeated Notre Dame, which has cut a swath through the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.

Notez bien: Just because I wrote that sentence doesn't mean I wish it to happen. Au contraire. Among the things in life I'd root for before Notre Dame: telemarketers, the Internal Revenue Service, warts, Justin Bieber. But the vagaries of Mosqueda-Lewis' illness enable the Irish to match UConn's talent in tandem with better depth.

The top three scorers on each team may well cancel each other: Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd and Natalie Achonwa vs. Stefanie Dolson, Breanna Stewart and Bria Hartley. What remains, however, tells a more complete story.

Notre Dame's next four - Michaela Mabrey, Lindsay Allen, Taya Reimer and Madison Cable are averaging a combined 7.7 points per game and have combined to make 83 3-pointers. UConn's next four - Mo Jefferson, Saniya Chong, Kiah Stokes and Brianna Banks average 6.4 points per game and have made 55 three-pointers.

Notre Dame's next player is Ariel Braker, who averages four points, five rebounds and 15 minutes per game. UConn's next player is a walk-on.

Hence, Notre Dame's bench isn't merely deeper, but better.

Those numbers, obviously, would bear less significance if mono makes a timely exit through Mosqueda-Lewis' system. But how can we be sure? Mosqueda-Lewis might be a game-time decision more times than we'd like for the foreseeable future.

UConn's upcoming schedule has some obstacles. A road game at Louisville to end the regular season. Three games in three days at the conference tournament without a deep team. And then the NCAA tournament draw: Would the committee really send UConn to the Louisville Region because of proximity, thereby making the Huskies beat the Cards at Louisville for a spot in the Final Four?

Notre Dame, meanwhile, will waltz to Nashville, playing the regionals at home.

Big games, especially on the road, will test UConn's ability to score. Again: Dolson, Stewart and Hartley are trustworthy. But they bear even more pressure now, given that Jefferson, Stokes, Banks and Chong have never been subject to high expectations and minutes in the NCAA tournament.

Could the Huskies survive a C-minus from Stewart in a regional semifinal or final?

Notre Dame, too, bears the most important component in defeating UConn: The Irish aren't scared. They may be even better this season, given that Skylar Diggins has graduated (draw your own conclusions on that one).

This is why UConn coach Geno Auriemma uses the word "fragile" so much. We may roll our eyes when he views every little ice cube as a potential sinker of Titanic. Some days, eyerolls are warranted. Others well, now you see how injuries and illness can keep coaches neurotic.

Even the most ardent UConn fan should be left wondering whether this monolith of January will hold up through early April. We know the Huskies will be well prepared. But the margin for error against good teams is thin enough to be spread across a saltine now. Maybe the key to national title No. 9 is three little words: Get well Kaleena.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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