One sign that life in Connecticut is close to returning to normal is that the Huskies’ men’s and women’s basketball teams are both returning to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Dan Hurley’s team was selected as the No. 7 seed in the East bracket of the men’s tournament Sunday night and will face No. 10 seed Maryland of the Big 10 at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana this Saturday at 7:10 p.m. The Indianapolis areas is the site for the entire men’s tournament this year.
Last night Geno Auriemma’s squad was selected as the No. 1 seed in the River Walk region and will play No. 16 seed High Point of the Big South Conference at 8 a.m. Sunday. The site for women’s tournament is the San Antonio area.
Just before the women’s NCAA bracket was revealed came the news that Auriemma had tested positive for COVID-19 and, per CDC and Connecticut Department of Health guidelines, will remain in isolation for 10 days and rejoin his team on March 24.
Auriemma received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on March 10 and is not experiencing any symptoms. According to CDC guidelines, he remains nine days shy of becoming fully vaccinated. The Hall of Fame coach has not had close contact with any other team member since March 12. All Tier I personnel have tested negative for COVID-19 since daily testing commenced, per NCAA Tournament protocol, on March 9.
“I feel great. I don’t have any symptoms, so it came as a complete shock for me and the medical staff,” Auriemma told reporters during a virtual news conference about the NCAA tournament. “We’ve been testing every day. I feel good and I’m really, really happy that our players are going to get a chance to go down there tomorrow and prepare to play in the NCAA tournament.”
Associate head coach Chris Dailey will lead the Huskies during Auriemma’s absence, as she occasionally has done during Auriemma’s absence, along with assistant coaches Jamelle Elliott and Shea Ralph.
“We work together, we talk every day,” Auriemma says. “I have complete confidence, trust and faith in CD, Shea, and Jamelle. I’m an innocent bystander right now. Our program is our program. We’ve been doing this since October. I don’t think anything is going to change in 10 days. We know how to get ready for teams. I’m not worried about that part. I just need them to win to games [so I can] help out after that.”
Auriemma’s players echoed his comments.
“I don’t think it really changes. Any other time when coach has been out she’s been in and it’s been the same,” says Olivia Nelson-Ododa about Dailey leading the team. “We’re excited to be coached under her. We all know our expectations; we all know what we need to do. She’s there to keep enforcing that and to keep us going.”
Concerning the tournament, Auriemma says he was not surprised Marquette was the only other Big East team selected in the brackets, noting that teams must avoid putting themselves in the position of being on the bubble by performing well throughout the season and in the conference tournament.
“The way the Big East Tournament played out, I think, hurt our teams,” he says. “I do think we have four or five teams that are good enough to be in the NCAA tournament. This conference had a lot of [tournament] teams in the past. This was a strange year. Next year we’ll have four or five teams. The brackets are hard, but it’s supposed to be hard.”
First NCAA Tournament for Seniors
Forward Tyler Polley says the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time was meaningful for the Huskies’ seniors. The last time the Huskies played in the NCAA tournament was five years ago.
“It means the world to me, Josh [Carlton] and Isiah [Whaley]. We’ve been through a lot, so much since we’ve been here,” he says. “To hear UConn being called on Selection Sunday, it’s an incredible feeling. I can’t even describe it. It’s been so long since UConn’s been playing in March Madness we just felt like it was a cause to celebrate the hard work, the long hours of work, and the grind to get to this point.”
“This was the main goal, this is something you dream about,” adds James Bouknight, the team’s leading scorer, who embraced his teammates in the New York City hotel, where the team awaited the NCAA selection announcement following the Big East tournament. “I can’t even explain this feeling. We’re going dancing. I’m just so happy. I’m happy for the seniors, the freshmen, coach, and the fans.”
Hurley said this year’s goals were to compete at a high level in the Big East tournament and move on to the NCAA tournament. In their return to the Big East conference, the Huskies finished third in regular season standings behind nationally ranked Villanova and Creighton and reached the semifinals of the conference tournament.
“It’s very gratifying thinking about where we were a couple of years ago. College basketball is more exciting when UConn is relevant and playing in March,” says Hurley, who is in his third year as head coach. “The University and the state loves its basketball team. It’s a beautiful moment to be back in it. The team is excited.”