For better or worse, Tennessee and Connecticut define women's college basketball these days and set a standard that other teams find nearly impossible to achieve.
Either the Lady Vols or the Huskies or both have appeared in eight of the last nine Final Fours, including this year with both teams in Atlanta. They have won six of the last eight national championships.
With all of the dominance Tennessee and Connecticut have over women's basketball it begs the question: Why can't other programs match their success?
"Probably that's what all the [athletic directors] want to know," said Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw, whose Irish broke the Lady Vols-Huskies stronghold by winning a national championship in 2001.
"There's kind of a magical thing going on there."
Several factors contribute to Tennessee's and Connecticut's success, including tradition, recruiting and media exposure.
Tennessee's winning tradition is unmatched. The Lady Vols have never recorded a losing season under Pat Summitt, who is in her 29th season at Tennessee. They have played in every NCAA tournament since its inception in 1982 and are appearing in their 14th Final Four. Tennessee has won six national titles, including three consecutive from 1996 to 1998.
Connecticut recently has become a powerhouse. When Geno Auriemma was hired in 1985, he inherited a program that had only one winning season the previous 11.
"I remember when Connecticut wasn't Connecticut, and they were just beginning," said Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan, who had Auriemma as an assistant for three seasons before he went to Connecticut.
Auriemma turned the Huskies into title contenders with his savvy recruiting and tough non-conference scheduling. Landing prized recruit Rebecca Lobo in 1991 ignited the Huskies' recent run, starting with their first undefeated season and first national championship in 1995. Since then the Huskies have made five more Final Four appearances, including four straight (2000-03), won two more national championships (2000 and 2002) and completed another undefeated season in 2002.
"It's fun to win, but we've never made the object for what our team does to win because then you're afraid to lose," Auriemma said. "We never talk about winning. We want to try to play a certain way that makes us feel good after the game."
While Summitt and Auriemma are acknowledged as two of the best coaching minds in the women's game, they also benefit from having some of the most talented players. The Lady Vols' and the Huskies' rosters are bursting with Naismith high school players of the year, Parade all-Americans and McDonald's all-Americans.
The best players tend to go where they can win a national championship, which makes it harder for up-and-coming programs to lure blue-chip recruits. Women's basketball also doesn't have the deep talent base like the men do, meaning there are fewer talented players to go around.
"We're just beginning to see more and more athletes being able to play at this level," Ryan said. "The more athletes we see playing at this level, the more athletes you're going to see staying closer to home and the more challenging it's going to be for the Tennessees and the Connecticuts."
It is not unusual in men's basketball to see a talented player go to a lesser-known school with the expectation that he can lead that program to greatness. Dwyane Wade taking Marquette to the Final Four this year is just one example. That rarely happens in women's basketball.
"I think a lot of women are happy being a complementary player," McGraw said. "I think they want to go to a place where there's other really good players so that they can be a part of it, but they don't have the pressure. . . . We just need a few more players who are willing to say, 'I want to be the one. I'm going to be the one to turn your program around.' "
Many coaches grouse that the media attention given to Tennessee and Connecticut helps perpetuate their success. In the last five seasons, 74 percent of the Lady Vols' games were televised. This season, six of their regular season games were shown on a national network.
Because of their proximity to New York City and ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., the Huskies also receive extensive coverage. Most of their games are broadcast on Connecticut public television and there are seven full-time beat writers from surrounding newspapers assigned to the team, more than some NFL teams have.
"Media attention is important to kids," McGraw said. "That stuff is all really, really important to kids. They're not all looking and going, hey, I can get a great education."
Most coaches expect Tennessee's and Connecticut's dominance to wane as the sport grows. They liken their vise grip on the national championship to the one Kentucky and UCLA held years ago in the men's game.
"Now that people are putting much more emphasis on women's basketball programs, it is starting to make a difference," Ryan said. "But it doesn't happen overnight."
Some argue that having Connecticut and Tennessee always battling for national championships is good for the sport because it attracts the casual fan. They compare it to golf and Tiger Woods, who has brought more fans to golf because he has dominated the PGA Tour. They believe Connecticut and Tennessee can do the same for women's basketball.
"Now that we have sellout crowds and the Final Four is the event that it is, I think people just want to see the best teams," Summitt said. "Certainly in this case, they're going to see four great teams compete in Atlanta. In that regard, I think that's good for the game. A lot of people think upsets and newcomers are good, and that's not a bad thing, but I don't think you can have the four schools that are there and not think that's good for women's basketball."