UConn seeking perfection yet again
Storrs - It begins with an empty gym on some Tuesday afternoon in January, where a day's worth of classes and the frigid walk to Gampel Pavilion has numbed their minds, refrigerated their bones and made the inevitable cacophony of complaints from the coach feel a little more ominous.
This is a typical UConn women's basketball practice day, where the circumstances are perpetually desperate and where the players feel the ground is usually rushing toward them, unsure whether the parachute will snap open.
This is the place where UConn coach Geno Auriemma, flip and glib for the cameras, emerges as a hybrid of Dr. Phil, Dr. Naismith and Dr. Evil.
And this is the genesis of where the Huskies, routinely the surest bet in sports, have made it to 70 straight wins for the second time since 2003. They are one short of breaking their own record, which should come tonight at the XL Center in the Big East Tournament semifinals.
The Huskies were long since north of 60 straight wins, with bons mots from other coaches and players raining on them daily, when Auriemma recently stopped practice. Suddenly, all the external praise went from a soothing rain to vicious hailstones.
It was hard enough for the Huskies to get a good shot against the five male practice players. But it was positively unbearable for the coach when Kaili McLaren and Heather Buck, whom Auriemma would call "dumb asses" loudly enough to be heard at the student union, passed up open shots at the free throw line.
"That's what happens," program alum and Connecticut Public Television analyst Meghan Culmo said. "It's like breakdown drills. The most fundamental of the fundamentals. If you don't cut to the basket on a straight line, Geno will stop practice. Every time. There are just certain things you do. Like if someone falls down, everyone runs over to pick them up. You yell the name of the person you are passing to. It all adds up."
Auriemma, once described by a New York sports columnist as a "fussy little dictator," assumed the role well with his rant toward McLaren and Buck. He railed about how it was possible for a team to win 60-something straight games and still pass up open shots to take contested shots.
"Because, really, that's how you win games," he said, sarcasm dripping like a leaky faucet.
Auriemma's aim is to make practice "impossible," as he says, so game situations are less daunting. That's why he uses male practice players, an assemblage of UConn students who played in high school, whose strength and athleticism generally eclipses anything the Huskies will see on game day.
Former program great Sue Bird, for example, once cited a practice player named "Brian" as "the best player I played against all year."
Culmo spent four years getting shoved around.
"It's his way of holding people accountable," she said. "There are no shortcuts. Practice is harder than a game for a reason: to get it exactly the way he wants it."
The way he wants it: Perfection, or at least a reasonable version thereof.
"You try to get that every game," Auriemma said. "But some games you come up short. . . . We're trying to play the absolute perfect game of basketball, knowing that it's impossible. And some games you get close; some games you get nowhere near it; some games you're just awful. But that's what you're trying to do every game.
"Some people just get tired of the chase. Some don't even start the chase. Some start it, realize they can't catch it and they just stop. What I've been trying to teach my players all along is that's the fun part. Knowing that you can't get to that, and you're going as hard as you can to get there anyway."
Moore and Charles: The best
The Huskies are not only undefeated over the last two seasons, they have won every game by double digits.
With interest in the sport growing, more games on television and more programs attracting interest, is it possible that UConn is THAT much better than everybody else?
"Their top five are very talented and can all score; offensive spacing is fantastic and because you have to honor everyone, they are really hard to defend," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale told reporters after UConn's win in Norman last month. "There's not another team in America that can match them player for player."
The Huskies have the two best college players in the country: forward Maya Moore and center Tina Charles, the latter of whom will be the Connecticut Sun's top draft choice next month. Senior Kalana Greene is expected to be a high WNBA draft choice, while guards Tiffany Hayes and Caroline Doty have made Renee Montgomery's graduation a duller ache.
Auriemma doesn't deny that Moore and Charles are the nation's elite. But …
"Everybody in America had a chance to recruit Tiffany Hayes and Caroline Doty," he said. "There are more teams than I can count who have All-Americans in their (recruiting) classes. So don't tell me we're the only team with good players."
Give Auriemma more time and he'll question his team's depth. That's one of the reasons few, if any, people around the program believe this is UConn's best team in history. Or even close to it.
Montgomery, for instance, was doing a mock video interview with former UConn great and Sun forward Asjha Jones for theday.com recently. Montgomery asked playfully, "So who was better, the 2002 team or (last season's undefeated) 2009 team?"
Jones shot Montgomery a laser beam look strong enough to withstand a load of laundry and said, "Do you have a death wish?"
Jones was part of a 2002 team with Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash and Tamika Williams that went 39-0 and is considered by some as the best college team ever. Auriemma thinks the 2001 team might have been better when Jones, Cash, Bird, Taurasi and Williams joined Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova.
Yet none of those teams inhaled the competition like this one.
"What separates them is how hard they play all the time," Coale said.
And so Auriemma is left to recruit players who want to get better. It's not necessarily a long list.
"Geno gets the right players and the right people. He has this vision of what it's supposed to look like and gets kids to buy into the vision. And he's relentless," said alum Culmo.
Auriemma said, "You need to have a strong sense of who you are and what you want. You need players who want to be coached and who want to grow and who want challenges. Not everybody wants that. Even some who came here thinking they wanted that found out they didn't."
'The old days'
Auriemma speaks of "the old days" reverently. That's when the Huskies played in the creaky, leaky old Fieldhouse and had trouble beating Providence. It feels like a lifetime ago. But that's where it all began.
Kathy Auriemma, Geno's wife, told a story once about when the couple was considering whether Geno should take the job.
"When we interviewed for the job, Geno came back and said, 'I'm pretty sure the fieldhouse is a piece of (you-know-what) because they never showed it to me.' But he didn't care what the fieldhouse looked like," Kathy said, "because he loved the people there and that's where he wanted to be. He doesn't want kids now who worry about there being no movie theaters in Storrs. He wants kids who are willing to make connections with the coaches, the other players and the people on campus. They're usually the ones that have the most success."
And so with modest facilities and no tradition in the mid-'80s, Auriemma and assistant Chris Dailey began building the foundation.
"If you ask people how we got good, they'll tell you it's because we have the best players," Auriemma said. "We probably got good because we had to be. How else would I stay? First, we got players other programs overlooked and made them better. Then we got players some wanted and made them better. Then we got players everybody wanted and made them better."
It began with the first All-American, Kerry Bascom, who led the Huskies to their first Final Four in 1991, six years after Auriemma took the job. Bascom begot Rebecca Lobo, who turned into Jennifer Rizzotti, Nykesha Sales, Kara Wolters, Shea Ralph, Svetlana Abrosimova, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles and Maya Moore.
"It's the coaching staff before everything else," Lobo said. "He's the best coach in the country and there's such consistency with Chris Dailey. He recruits players he wants and coaches them like nobody else has. I wanted to play for him. I would have gotten a good education anywhere I went. But when I visited, I kept thinking, 'I want to be with these people.'"
From the old days to the glory days, the UConn women have become the national yardstick. Tonight, they'll likely break a record only they were good enough to establish.
And then it's back to practice with the fussy little dictator.