Since their first national title in 1995, UConn women’s basketball has been among women’s college basketball’s elite programs.
Then Breanna Stewart arrived. Once she worked through her freshmen struggles, the Huskies went from a top program to an unstoppable force, winning four-straight national titles and losing just one game her final three seasons. Now, in the two years since her graduation, the team has still not lost a regular season game and only has a pair of losses, both in overtime on last-second buzzer beaters in the Final Four.
But after all the winning, head coach Geno Auriemma almost wishes his team stumbled more often.
“The last couple years, we go into every big game on ESPN and I go, ‘I hope today’s the day we get our ass kicked,”’ Auriemma said. “Just so that we can feel what it feels like to regroup a little bit. Once in a while I’d like to have our kids look at something and get pissed off. But that doesn’t happen.”
There’s dominance in every other major sports league, collegiate and professional. But nobody can stack up to the near invincibility of the Huskies over the past five years.
“It’s nuts, right? It’s not normal,” Auriemma said. “Our seniors have never lost a regular season game, conference or non-conference. They live in a world that by any stretch of the imagination is the most ridiculous thing. If you wrote a book for middle school kids, ‘There’s a team and they never lose,’ the kid would go, ‘This is fiction’. This isn’t real. It’s not normal. I want them to get back to normal.”
When a team wins as much as UConn, it’s easy for complacency to seep in. Auriemma has tried fighting it in different ways, such as keeping his Big Three on the bench in the first quarter against Cincinnati in 2016 and benching his starters after 10 minutes against Tulsa this past season.
Even when the team is running roughshod through every team in their way, Auriemma wants to make sure they know it still isn’t good enough.
“When we watch film of tonight’s game you said we won by 50, the players on the team are going to walk out of that film room saying “I thought we won last night,’” he said. “It’s constant. Don’t let the score fool you. There’s a constant, ‘We’re not good enough.’”
But for this style of coaching to work, it can’t just be Auriemma and his staff telling it to the players. They need to believe it themselves.
“The way that keeps perpetuating itself is the kids we recruit actually believe that. So we have the type of kids where I say, ‘We’re not good enough’ and they say ‘Coach is right.’” he said. “We have players that come to Connecticut and they want to hear that. They want to know, ‘How can I get better?’”
That mentality can be difficult to grasp for freshmen. In high school, they spent four years dominating the competition and being told how good they were. Once they get to college, they find out very quickly that UConn is quite different from high school basketball.
“Some kids never get it. Some get it right away. Most of them, they have to have a certain amount of failure,” Auriemma said. “Generally speaking, their sophomore year, they’re starting to understand between what they used to do and what they need to do. Those that don’t get it by the time they’re sophomores, I have found, pretty much don’t get it.”
When it does click for players, they carry it throughout their career. That’s how players such as Sue Bird continue to not only stay in the WNBA, but still dominate even as they age.
“I’ve had conversations with Sue since 2016 since we got back from Rio where she just says ‘I just want to make the world championship team, then we’ll worry about the Olympics,’” Auriemma remembered. “And I’m thinking, ‘You’re going to be the starting point guard, what do you mean you just want to make the team?’”
However, not all of Auriemma’s former players follow the same mindset as Bird.
“Now Diana [Taurasi] don’t think like that. She thinks she should be coaching the damn team,” he quipped.
Jokes aside, it helps that Auriemma gets these players at a perfect point in their development to build that mindset.
“I think we get them at an age where they’re most impressionable. They’re just learning how to really become great basketball players,” he said. “I think the players we get ultimately learn to embrace how hard it is and then they become very demanding of themselves and then they become very demanding of their teammates. That’s why they’ve been able to last so long in the pros.”