The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, August 12, 2020
The two moods of Geno Auriemma — Must-click women's basketball links — Hear Geno in full
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The two moods of Geno Auriemma
There were no shortage of strange circumstances surrounding our media get-together with Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut women’s basketball team this week.
It was on Zoom. It was months before a season typically begins. And there’s little reason to believe that will take place as we typically think of it, an October ramping up into a November tipoff, followed quickly, in UConn tradition, by an extremely difficult non-conference schedule, concluding with a trip to the Final Four.
That’s not how Auriemma thinks this is going to go.
“If somebody said, like in the old days, ‘All right, your first exhibition game’s November 3,’ all right, now we know what we’re dealing with. Now the challenge is, how do I put my team together in that period of time. But no one’s able to give you a schedule.”
Accordingly, what’s followed is more of a rough assessment — five months without being on the court for some players, an attempt to get players physically up to speed. But what is up to speed?
Elite athletes and coaches need a start time to plot — knowing what Point B is, and making a plan to get there. Nobody knows what Point B is right now. It’s hard enough to understand what Point A is.
“You really can’t have anything other than patience,” Auriemma said. “You can’t get upset about anything. Can’t be in a hurry. Be in a hurry? To go where? Be in a hurry? To do what? So we just take our time and it’s almost like I’m back teaching high school. And I’m back running my basketball camp.”
That sense of resignation permeated the call, but only as it related to when we could expect women’s basketball to return. Normally, Auriemma saves that level of frustration for the way he talks about his freshmen.
Not this year. Not with Paige Bueckers in the fold. Auriemma has this tell about when he knows he’s got something special going on, this little extra grin he tosses onto the end of his paragraphs like a garnish. It used to come up all the time during the Breanna Stewart years. We’re seeing a lot of it, already, about Paige Bueckers.
“They’re a good group,” Auriemma said of his freshman class. “I really like them a lot. They have a great way about them. They’re competitive as hell… thinking back to some freshman classes that we’ve had here. And I’m thinking, oh, my God, this group’s like a breath of fresh air.”
Understand, this isn’t typically how Auriemma talks about freshmen. And not just those who fail to live up to UConn expectations: this is true of those who do!
Take Moriah Jefferson, who only led the Huskies to four national titles as the team’s point guard.
“I mean, your freshman your freshman year at UConn is going to be the toughest,” Jefferson told The IX Wednesday. “Coach is going to be really, really tough on you especially being a point guard, because it’s your job to run the show. But have a short memory, when it comes to mistakes, don’t think about the mistakes so much, just go in, play super hard, be aggressive and everything else will follow through.”
Something you’re going to need to get used to in this space is hearing about, and from, Paige Bueckers. There have been plenty of talented freshmen. And sure, injuries and other fates can alter trajectories. But Bueckers is talked about, and experienced, differently than any player I can remember since, frankly, Breanna Stewart. The game — a point guard’s court vision, a desire to go finish through contact, a relentlessness that will amplify all her gifts as she matures physically — speaks for itself.
But Bueckers also has plenty to say. She’s constantly in Auriemma’s office, or texting with him. She’s in regular contact with Stewart, too, looking for ways to model her platform after the best player in the WNBA. (We’ll save the MVP discussion for now, but it’s Stewart’s to lose at the moment, and A’ja Wilson, Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker. That’s the list.)
Imagine, if you will, a young woman who worked her whole life to get to UConn, only to be delayed by circumstances none of us could have predicted.
“I texted coach, even in May, June and July I was like, I want to get out here as soon as I can,” Bueckers said Monday. “I’d rather be here than be at sitting around and not really working as much as I would if I wasn’t here. I was really anxious and really excited to get up here.”
To practice in the UConn gym is to be surrounded by banners, so many that at times, the program has struggled with the problem of how to fit them all on the walls. (No, seriously.) Bueckers finally got that far, and felt the awe of her present circumstances, taking it all in.
“I wanted to be since I was a little kid and so yeah, just finally being up here — it’s really exciting,” Bueckers said.
It should be exciting for basketball, too. But this coronavirus, that has done so much damage in larger ways — millions ill, hundreds of thousands dead — has robbed us, too, of smaller yet significant basketball milestones.
It is entirely possible, if not likely, that COVID-19 will deny us both a proper ending to Sabrina Ionescu’s college career, and a proper beginning to Paige Bueckers’ tenure at UConn. She said her goal is to win four titles, just like Breanna Stewart.
Will she even get the chance?
“I told my staff this morning: ‘Look, once the rest of the country cancels football, then we’ll know there’s no fall sports,’” Auriemma said. “Then we know there’s no basketball games in the fall, so there won’t be any games in November. And then we can start thinking about January, February maybe. Who knows?”
Auriemma doesn’t think a bubble scenario is likely, though he’s not against considering it. But right now, he’s just training, in place, for a season that he knows might not happen.
The tragedy — in basketball terms, sure, but still a relative tragedy for those of us who love this sport as much as I do — of that is we won’t get to see this young UConn team for a while. Geno’s extra grin will live on Zoom for many months to come.
He flashed it again after he went through his whole roster, focusing on the growth of returning players like Aubrey Griffin and, of course, the massively talented freshman class.
“The freshmen are going to contribute immensely to what we’re doing,” he said. “Not just because they have to. Because they’re really good. They’re really good. And we’re going to surprise some people I think. I think we’re going to be pretty good. I think we’ll win more games than we lose.”
And then: that grin.
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Five at The IX: Geno Auriemma
Honestly, you should always just listen to an entire Geno Auriemma news conference. Quotes don’t do it justice. Click on Geno to hear it all.