Having spent most of 2010 attending to perfection – completing a second consecutive perfect season, winning a seventh national championship, and then leading the USA Women’s Basketball Team to a world championship – Geno Auriemma should not have been surprised by the first day of practice of the 2010-2011 season.
“The first day was as bad as any day I’ve ever had since I got the job coaching at Connecticut,” the Hall of Fame coach said of a team made up of five returning players and five untested first year players who made the kind of mistakes freshmen will make under his watchful eye on Day One. “But each day it’s gotten better and better and better. There were actually a couple of days when I thought, these guys can be pretty good.”
Auriemma will find out if “pretty good” is enough for the consensus pre-season No. 1 Huskies with a schedule that will test a young team led by All-Everything senior Maya Moore. He says the Big East is as competitive as ever, with four other league teams (West Virginia, Georgetown, St. John’s, and Notre Dame) in the Top 25 national rankings. There also is the out-of-league schedule, which includes six other nationally ranked teams (Baylor, Stanford, Duke, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Texas A&M).
Then there is the streak: 78 consecutive games won over two years, something that Auriemma says will end this year, which has the media questioning why a coach would admit to the possibility of losing.
“I’m realistic,” he says. “I’m not going lie and say we’re so much better than Baylor, Duke, or Stanford … I’m not putting it out there to motivate anybody or for any ulterior motive. I’m just telling you what I think is the honest to God truth … I don’t know that the expectation should be less in terms of winning, but I just don’t think it’s going to be as overwhelmingly easy as it has been. There’s going to be some losses along the way. There’s going to be some nights when these freshmen don’t have it. There’s going to be some nights when foul trouble gets us.”
In many ways, having the defending national champions return with the best player in the country leading an inexperienced team provides Auriemma with a sense of déjà vu, thinking back to the 2002-2003 season. That was the year after Swin Cash, Sue Bird, Asjha Jones, and Tamika Williams led the Huskies to the NCAA championship and were among the top picks in the WNBA. Diana Taurasi returned to lead the Huskies and several freshmen to the second of three consecutive championships. Many considered that season Auriemma’s finest coaching effort.
“I was kind of proud of that year, especially when you lose four pros and you don’t lose until the last game of the regular season,” he said. “But the second week of practice that year, we were going up and down; I looked at one of my friends who was at practice, and I said: ‘You know what? We’re going to be just as good as last year.’ One of the reasons I said that is … because Diana could play any position. That’s where the whole, ‘We’ve got Diana and you don’t’ thing came from. Whenever I needed a sub for a particular spot, I just put her there. Can we do that with Maya? Well, we’ll see.”
Moore spent the summer as the only collegiate player on the USA Basketball Team that won the 2010 FIBA World Championship, practicing and playing alongside the top professional basketball players in the world. Part of that time was spent observing Taurasi, trying to learn from the player widely considered the best in the world.
“I watched how she carried herself on the national team, seeing how she interacts with her teammates, the things she would say and how she would play on the court when the shot was needed,” said Moore, the consensus Big East pre-season Player of the Year and a pre-season Wooden Award selection. “I feel I have help. I’m very confident in the players we have coming back – Tiffany (Hayes), Kelly (Faris), and Lorin (Dixon). It’s not all on my shoulders. I have a team and players behind me who are really good and willing to step up to fill those places that need to be filled. With them behind me, that gives me all the confidence in the world to go and what I know I can do.”
Junior guard Hayes, a unanimous All-Big East pre-season selection who also is on the Wooden Award list, said she has gained confidence as she has worked to improve her game, and is ready to help lead her younger teammates.
“I’m ready to step up,” she said. “I’m more confident as a player and as a person. You have to go into every game knowing you have people looking up to you, especially this year with five freshmen. You can’t put pressure on them to come in and save us from missing everyone who left. But at the same time they have to play a role for us.”
Senior guard Dixon knows that Auriemma will be counting on her experience working with Hayes and Moore in the backcourt, without junior Caroline Doty, who is lost for the season after surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“Maya has the ability to make everybody alongside of her better,” Dixon said. “She’s been playing with the best guards in the world. She’s going to expect me and Tiffany to be on our game and sharp. That’s going to make me and Tiffany raise our game even higher. It will make the team better.”
With the graduation of Player of the Year center Tina Charles and clutch senior Kalana Greene, the Huskies will be more of an outside-in team this season, depending on their guard play as redshirt sophomore center Heather Buck and freshman center Stefanie Dolson evolve their play.
“The thing I really want is to be a player Coach can rely on; be consistent and dependable,” said Buck, the only Connecticut native on the roster. “You look at our schedule and there’s not an easy game on there. We’ve been mentally preparing; it’s going to be hard, physical, and everybody’s going to be coming after us. I’m ready to step up and take that role.”
In the early days of pre-season practice, Auriemma said his freshman players are developing at different paces, as he expected. He is looking to guard Bria Hartley and center Dolson to help the team immediately. Guard Lauren Engeln is struggling toward greater consistency in her play. Forwards Michala Johnson and Samarie Walker are working their way back from injuries.
Auriemma notes that when the Huskies have had their greatest success, they have had two All-American players playing together. Moore is there already. Hayes, the first player to wear the No. 3 jersey since Taurasi, appears to be heading toward that kind of recognition with her inclusion on the Wooden Award, which recognizes the nation’s Top 30 players.
“If she can be that other All-American,” he says. “We’ve got a chance.”
For the 2010-2011 women’s basketball schedule, go to the Athletics website.