It’s almost become a yearly tradition around these parts: At the beginning of the season, Geno Auriemma says his current team isn’t that good and doesn’t live up to the standards of past teams.
Here’s one example. The coach had this to say leading up to one of UConn’s exhibitions last year:
“This is a little different than how it has been the last couple years. There wasn’t a whole lot of mystery the last couple years of who was going to do what on the court. We had a pretty good sense of which kid can do this and which kid can do that and what our team can do. So this year I am looking forward to the exhibition game that I don’t particularly know yet that I want to find out.”
Despite that, the Huskies still roll through most (if not all) of their non-conference schedule, dominate the AAC and figure out their way back to the Final Four. Like clockwork.
So here we are again at the start of a season. And after losing a couple key players from the year prior, Auriemma doesn’t think this current squad resembles anything close to what’s expected at UConn.
“This ain’t my past teams. You’re going to have to stop all the comparisons between past teams and this team. This isn’t anything close to past teams. So what we’ve seen in the past is not what we’re seeing right now.
“And maybe we’ll see some of it in the future. But past teams have had a lot of experience, or a lot of really diverse kinds of talent so it was easier to look that good early on. Now we look like every other team in the country that’s played two weeks. Except maybe a couple teams that are blowing people out, I don’t know. Like I said the first day we got together here, I said this is not going to be like any other team we’ve had in quite some time.”
It’s not just Auriemma trying to motivate his team, though. After losing two great players in Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, it’s hard to turn to players that are still in the primary stages of their development. They aren’t going to turn into superstars overnight.
“There’s no rushing trying to make [Olivia Nelson-Ododa] into Napheesa or Stewie. You’re going to go where she was last year to that? It’s not going to happen,” Auriemma said. “There’s no rushing making Christyn Williams into Katie Lou Samuelson as a junior or senior, or Kia Nurse. It’s not going to happen. You’re not going to rush Anna (Makurat) or Aubrey (Griffin) into being what Crystal was last year. It’s not gonna happen. So it’s just going to take a lot of time. How much time, I have no idea.”
Through two games, UConn hasn’t played like its usual self. Instead of ripping through two weaker opponents in Cal and Vanderbilt, the Huskies have needed to grind to earn closer-than-usual wins. While there have been flashes where the team played up to its potential — “Eight minutes exactly, I counted,” Auriemma said, referencing an eight-minute stretch against the Commodores — it’s still very much a work in progress.
But in the end, the coach isn’t worried about how aesthetically pleasing his team’s play is. All he cares about is coming away with a win.
“A friend of mine from down at UVA sent me a great quote that I’ve been using with our team. Tony Bennett made a comment, ‘It’s not always going to look pretty, but it always has to be gritty.’ So maybe that’s our motto this year. It’s not gonna look pretty. But it has to be gritty. I’d go with that for now,” he said.
Westbrook Saga Continues
On Wednesday, Evina Westbrook’s waiver appeal was denied, meaning she will sit out the 2019-20 season. Throughout the process, Auriemma has been very critical of Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer’s handling of the situation, stating numerous times that if Fulmer supported Westbrook’s transfer instead of simply not opposing it, she would’ve been granted the waiver.
Fulmer finally responded to those comments in an interview with WLTV in Knoxville.
“I saw a little bit of it. Coach doesn’t know me at all. I’ve never met him but I know of him. I don’t really know him either,” Fulmer said. “We’re moving forward with Lady Vol basketball...it’s water under the bridge and we’re looking forward.”
Despite Fulmer’s rather diplomatic answer, Auriemma continued to sound off on the situation.
“Right. No, I don’t know him. He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him,” he said. “I do know Evina met with him on a number of occasions. And then he said its first time he’s heard of it was when he read about. So somebody’s not telling the truth.”
“Just say, ‘Hey, we support Evina’s move. We think it’d be best for her if she was at another place.’ Which is what we do with every kid,” Auriemma continued. “So I wasn’t asking him to do something no one does. But then don’t bitch and moan when one of your kids gets denied who’s trying to come into your school.”
Both Auriemma and UConn athletic director David Benedict have spoken at length and in various ways about the “unhealthy environment” at Tennessee that forced Westbrook to transfer but have remained vague on what the issues actually were. Auriemma intends to keep it that way.
“I don’t feel like it’s my place to do that. It’s somebody else’s. If Evina wants to, if anybody in her camp wants to that’s different. I’m not going to get into any of that,” Auriemma said. “We’ve had kids transfer in here lots of times, we’ve never applied for a waiver. Because we know, ‘Hey, the kid left for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment.’ This one was different. This one was 110,000 times different. And for the NCAA to not see that was very disappointing.”
Former Tennessee coach Holly Warlick pushed back on the idea that she fostered an unhealthy environment within the program.
“I hate for it to come to this, but nobody except the NCAA made the decision,” Warlick told ESPN. “To throw us under the bus, I think it’s kind of crazy.”
“There are a lot of things we had to deal with last year, but I’m not putting all that out there publicly,” she added later. “But there are so many more layers than what I think Geno knows. I don’t want to stir things up, and go back and forth. But there are so many factors that went into last year.”
UConn kicks off AAC play on Sunday when it travels down to Philadelphia to take on Temple. While the Huskies typically begin its conference schedule in January, Auriemma said the scheduling quirk was a result of the team’s exhibition against the US National Team.
“It was either this or playing five games in eight days, something like that because we added the national team game,” he said. “So when we added that game, something had to change. And that’s a big, big reason why this game was (scheduled for November).”