By Lenn Robbins
Geno Auriemma, the most accomplished coach in the history of major college sports, made a fascinating statement that shone a sliver of light on how he’s built the Connecticut Dynasty.
“I encourage our players to have multiple personalities,” he said on a Zoom call Thursday.
Multiple personalities. How does that work?
Especially this year: His University of Connecticut women’s team consists of seven freshmen, two sophomores, three juniors and zero seniors. Zero.
How many voices –spoken and silent – were talking in the meeting room at any given time? Freud would have a field day with this group. But when you’re UConn, there isn’t time ease into the season playing getting to know you. It’s ‘Go Time’ starting with the first practice.
And for the first time in Auriemma’s 36 seasons, he handed the ball and the leadership of a championship caliber team to a freshman – Paige Bueckers, the No.1 recruit in the nation.
Here is what Auriemma and Bueckers faced:
The freshmen didn’t have a clue about college basketball. The juniors didn’t have a clue about the freshmen, who they needed to excel in order to continue Connecticut’s perennial pursuit of perfection. The sophomores were sandwiched in the middle.
And the seniors? Again, there weren’t any for those frosh and sophs to turn, especially while being coached by a man who junior Christyn Williams said isn’t the most patient of people.
“I know coach got all of his gray hairs coaching us,” quipped Bueckers, who Thursday became only the second player in Big East Conference history to win Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year.
It was, of course, another UConn player, Maya Moore, who did it the first time. Auriemma? He was just voted Big East Coach of the Year for the 17th time.
While the coach’s hair was going gray and the freshmen were rushing the sorority known as the Connecticut Dynasty, the entire team was trying to determine if they liked each other. Then they had to figure out if they could be successful playing together.
“There were a lot of questions,” said Williams. “I didn’t know what type of players there were, what type of people they were so I didn’t know if they were going to fold or whatever. They never did.”
Connecticut did what Connecticut has always done since Year 4 of the Auriemma Dynasty. He was 43-39 in his first three seasons, making him an astounding 1069-104 in the last 33 seasons. The only losing record (12-15) came in Year 1.
The Huskies (24-1) head into the Big East Conference Tournament as the No.1-ranked team in the nation. They began the nation ranked 3rd, slipped to fourth, before returning to their familiar place atop the polls.
How much joy did Auriemma get molding this team? How much frustration did Auriemma experience molding this team?
“I think from an off-the-court perspective, since August when they first got here, I think what they’ve done off the court and how they’ve handled all the things that have happened, it’s been a pretty incredible group,” said Auriemma. “They’ve really been amazing to work with as far as that’s concerned.”
And on the court?
“The on the court stuff has been a little more, let’s say, challenging,” said Auriemma. “I think we’ve had great moments. We’ve done some really neat things during the season at times. And there’s times where we’ve played really, really well for long, long stretches But I can’t think back to any one time and think, ‘That’s about as well as we can play basketball.’ I think don’t think that time has arrived yet.”
Here we go. Another Auriemma challenge slap across the face of women’s college basketball, something he has never been averse to doing. And why not?
Auriemma has won 11 National Championships. John Wooden won 10.
All UConn had to do was figure out each other, figure out what playing for Auriemma is like, figure out what college basketball is like – and do it all from the safety of a hotel because of the pandemic. There has been nothing familiar about this season beginning with COVID, the mass arrival of freshmen and the reality that the Huskies get everyone’s best shot every night.
There will always be debate as to whether the pandemic made bringing a team together easier or harder. Forcing the players to live on one floor in a hotel because of COVID, could have accelerated the bonding. Or spending so much time in a restricted setting with strangers can turn a BFF to a frenemy PDQ.
“Listen, everyone’s had their struggles with this [pandemic] around the world so there’s no whining, there’s no complaining,” said Auriemma. “It’s a lot to sacrifice just to play basketball.”
That’s what makes this season’s success so impressive. Clearly the Huskies came together. Auriemma, Bueckers and Williams all said it happened in the preseason, which is stunning considering all the new parts. The Huskies only loss was a three-pointer at then No. 19 Arkansas. The Razorbacks are now ranked 13th and UConn has won 11 straight.
Auriemma has posted six undefeated seasons, a 1112-143 (886-winning percentage) record, including 122-20 in tournament play. The only coach who compares is former West Virginia Mountaineers rifle team coach Dr. Ed Etzel, who posted a 101-3 mark with four national championships in the mid-80s.
It’s impossible to compare such dissimilar sports but here’s where the dynasty Auriemma has built pushes his program over the top. When the Big East Conference lost all its FBS football programs, the Huskies were banished to the American Athletic Conference. Usually such a move cripples a program. Think Nebraska in football, which left the Big Eight for the Big Ten and fell off the map.
After winning two national titles and going undefeated in league play (118-0), while in the AAU, UConn returned to the Big East. Waiting was another burden.
UConn hasn’t won a national title in four years. The last time that happened, 1995-96 to 1998-89, the Huskies won four of the next five national titles. Azzi Fudd, the nation’s No.1 recruit, is following Bueckers to Storrs next season. Which means UConn is poised for another dominating run.
This remarkable season might go down in UConn basketball lore. So has this been fun or frustrating?
“There’s been a lot of all the above this year,” said Auriemma.
“With a lot of young players, it’s been frustrating unlike any other year I’ve had in a while,” he continued. Watching them get better has been incredibly rewarding, watching our freshmen evolve into being able to win a championship has been gratifying and been great for them and I just hope they get a chance to show it again over the next couple of days.”
The Big East women’s tournament tips off Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT., a drive from Storrs, giving the Huskies a huge advantage. Here’s the other edge UConn has and it brings us back to multiple personalities.
The four-year championship drought can be traced to one deficiency – a killer instinct. The Huskies fielded terrific teams with nice young ladies. Auriemma wants players who are nice off the court and stone-cold killers on it.
Apparently, several of this year’s players have a good kind of schizophrenia going for them. Bueckers, Williams, and freshman Aaliyah Edwards are charter members of the multiple personality team – lap dogs off the court and pit bulls on it.
“We saw that fight and that’s something we’ve been lacking the past couple of years,” Williams said.
UConn practices have a Lord of the Rings tone to them as Auriemma strives every year to get the right team of players that can go from Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll. He just might have enough of them, even without a senior on the roster.
“The confidence that he instills in all of our players is that if we can win practice, if we can beat him in practice, nobody can beat us in a game,” said Bueckers.
We’ll see over the next month but as everyone in the tristate area knows, you have to be a little bit crazy to make it in the world.