UConn women make Big East media day splash; Williams, Bueckers claim top honors
Geno Auriemma put his hand up to the camera and tried to block out the portion of everyone's screen where UConn freshman Paige Bueckers was featured on Thursday's Zoom conference call.
Auriemma likes to help keep the focus off of Bueckers' transcendent talent when it comes to basketball, making light of her celebrity as the top-ranked women's player in the Class of 2024 and all of the hype that comes with it.
On Thursday, Bueckers was named the Big East Conference Preseason Freshman of the Year on what was UConn's first Big East Media Day since rejoining the conference after seven years away.
UConn junior Christyn Williams was named Preseason Player of the Year and the Huskies were chosen first in the league's preseason coaches' poll.
"I don't even know why we have a Preseason Freshman of the Year. That's pointless," Auriemma said. "Let me put my hand over it. I don't even know why we have Paige on this call.
"Everybody knows about Paige. That's what comes with being so highly recruited and all the attention and that's all well and good. Paige handles it great. She's a great teammate, she's easy to coach, she's easy to be around with her teammates. But I don't think Paige is going to come in here and single-handedly win us a national championship. That's not how this works."
All 11 Big East coaches took part in Thursday's Media Day event, with league commissioner Val Ackerman also participating as well as Amber Cox from the Mohegan Sun, where the Big East will hold its conference tournament for the next three seasons.
There was a great deal of focus on UConn's return to the league, with DePaul coach Doug Bruno referring to the Huskies as "the best program in the history of college basketball" and a line of questioning about a potential season in a bubble or series of bubbles to combat the coronavirus and whether that would be viable.
UConn had the spotlight last, with Auriemma joined on screen by Bueckers and Williams. The Hall of Fame coach closed his remarks with his thoughts on the upcoming election, a series of reflections so poignant and heartfelt that no one from the panel of media asked another basketball-related question afterward.
But it was also one step closer to a return to basketball.
UConn last played on March 9 in the American Athletic Conference tournament championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena, beating Cincinnati 87-53. The Huskies finished their seven-year run in the AAC at 139-0.
They were the Big East's unanimous selection Thursday. UConn, featuring seven players who have never worn the Huskies uniform before — six freshmen, plus redshirt junior Evina Westbrook — is scheduled to open the season against Quinnipiac on Nov. 28 at Mohegan Sun as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Women's Challenge.
Bueckers, a 5-foot-11 guard from Hopkins, Minn., was asked how she would define success for herself in her collegiate career.
"I would say obviously winning in everything that we do," Bueckers said. "I hate losing. Success to me is winning everything, not just games, it's drills in practice, competitive drills we do."
The best advice Bueckers has gotten to help her transition to the spotlight at the collegiate level?
"Just kind of the best advice I've got was just like don't worry about it," Bueckers said. "My dad, he's always preached to me (to) just be me, just be the best version of myself I can be. And coach, he's always talking to me about how I just need to focus on being a better teammate, being a better player, not focus on all the outside noise."
Auriemma said the first "celebrity" UConn recruit was eventual Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo, who came to the program back in 1991. The list went on to include several other luminaries, from Diana Taurasi to Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart.
"There wasn't a lot of hoopla relatively speaking," Auriemma said. "None of them have ever faced the kind of glare that exists in the world of social media in this day and age."
Auriemma said his best bet is to not "talk about any of that nonsense," surrounding Bueckers. He knows what comes next is that each of the freshmen will struggle at times with their new surroundings. He just wants them to be able to stay on an even plane when that time comes.
"I think Paige has had a lot of success in college already," Auriemma said. "In some ways, her month of October has been a tremendous success (in practice). What will November be like?"
Meanwhile, Auriemma said the team chemistry on the court has had its peaks and valleys, ranging from "really, really good," to "god-awful" as he tries to integrate seven new players.
Williams, a 5-11 junior guard from Little Rock, Ark., is one of the team's returnees, along with fellow junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa, a 6-5 junior forward from Winder, Ga. Those two are serving as team captains along with Westbrook, who sat out last season after transferring from Tennessee.
While Williams, who averaged 14.6 points per game last season while making first team All-AAC, was named Big East Preseason Player of the Year, Nelson-Ododa and Westbrook were both named to the preseason first team team.
"It's been different," Williams said of being one of the team's elder statesmen. "But the younger guys have been so good. They have a willingness to learn and they listen and they're very competitive. So it's been good, but they've made it easier for us."