Huskies go for two, minus their general

Storrs — The concepts of "confidence" and "leadership" are on the path toward becoming full-time sports clichés, if for no other reason than they are uttered incessantly without much thought from the questioner. And then there's the absence of a functional definition, as if some manual exists that instructs how they materialize within the team concept over a six-month period.

UConn women's basketball players might be asked about confidence and leadership more often this season.

Did this win inspire confidence, Maya?

Who are the leaders of this team, Tina?

This just in: They'd be much better questions this season than last.

Because last season, "confidence" was having Renee Montgomery on the floor.

Last season, "leadership" was whatever Montgomery happened to be doing at the time.

It is not hyperbole, not even close, to suggest Montgomery was their conscience. For six months. Every day. She personified perfection, its eyes and ears, for all her teammates.

And now Montgomery is gone.

But another season is here.

And this is where we begin with the Huskies of 2010.

Who distributes the ball?

Who's the leader when the shadows lengthen and the time grows desperate?

Whom do they follow when the locker room door closes and Geno Auriemma is no longer in there?

Can they navigate one of the toughest schedules in the country, with Texas, Stanford, Duke, Carolina, Notre Dame and Rutgers all looming?

OK.

Now exhale.

Now that you've seen all the questions, here are a few who dared answer:

"I hope we beat them, but I think UConn can go undefeated again," Pittsburgh coach Agnus Berenato told reporters at Big East Media Day. "I mean, if they go 39-0 again this year, Maya Moore will still have another year - they're going to have a real chance to break John Wooden's (UCLA) record of 88 straight wins. I didn't think that would ever be done. That's how good they are. They're in a class by themselves."

Villanova coach Harry Perretta said at Media Day, "I really think they can break UCLA's record. I'm not just saying that because Geno Auriemma my friend. They're just so good. I mean, Maya Moore is not just the best player in the country at one position, she's probably the best player at four positions. The only position she's not the best player at is center, but they have the best center (Tina Charles). They're just so far ahead of everybody else."

It's doubtful Berenato and Perretta were awash in coachspeak. They probably believe every word of it because the national perception of the Huskies is of a greater monolith than ever. Montgomery's absence is not nearly as relevant as the presence of Maya Moore and Charles, arguably the two best players in the country.

Moore, a junior, averaged 19.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season, while Charles (16.5, 8.9) could be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft next April.

"Yes, the guys we have coming back are really good, but we don't see it as the pressure of defending a title but more as a chance to win a new one," Auriemma said.

Clearly, the coach isn't lacking confidence. The night of the preseason "Supershow" with the men and women's teams on the floor, he told the crowd, "We have two teams here standing in front of you, and they only want one thing: They only want for you every night this season to come out and show them your appreciation. Then what they will give you at the end of the year is two national championships."

That quote might endure all season. But at least the season starts Saturday as the path to the 11th Final Four, seventh national championship and fourth undefeated season begins.

Montgomery, who played for the Minnesota Lynx last summer, has several candidates to replace her. Lorin Dixon started the two preseason games, but sustained a strain to her left hamstring that will likely give the ball to sophomores Tiffany Hayes and Caroline Doty. Hayes had point guard duties Monday night during a win over Vanguard. When a reporter asked her about her confidence level running the team, the pause in Hayes' answer revealed almost as much as the actual answer.

"I wouldn't say I feel comfortable with it, but as of now I've been doing OK with it in practice and I'm still working at it," Hayes said. "As the season goes on I think I'll have more experience getting better at it.'"

Hayes played quite a bit as a freshman, averaging 8.4 points and four rebounds per game. She joins Moore and Charles on the Big East preseason team, while senior Kalana Greene is an honorable mention. Doty's season ended with a knee injury early. Her presence gives the Huskies some toughness and accurate outside shooting.

Freshman Kelly Faris played well in two preseason games and will provide depth as will Kaili McLaren, Meghan Gardler and former Stonington High greats Heather Buck and Jacquie Fernandes.

UConn's first road game of the season will be in San Antonio next week. Maybe their last game of the season will be there, too. San Antonio is the site of the 2010 Final Four.

m.dimauro@theday.com

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