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Six Things to Know as UConn Heads into the NCAA Tournament

The Huskies are underseeded and Monday’s reveal was a disaster. Here’s what really matters as tournament preparation gets started.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The UConn Huskies were slated as a two-seed in Monday’s hasty bracket reveal. While that circus somewhat sucked the air out of the excitement that comes with bracket releases, there are a lot of interesting storylines to follow as we look forward to the start of the tournament.

1) Katie Lou Samuelson will be back for the start of the NCAA Tournament

This is obviously big news for UConn. The senior declared herself “ready to go,” and said she’s been improving throughout the week. Even though the Huskies could easily beat Towson in the opening game without, Geno Auriemma isn’t going to consider resting Samuelson for it.

“Did you see our first half against South Florida? We can’t afford to sit anybody for any game. We’re not sitting anybody for any game in the NCAA Tournament,” Auriemma laughed. “Lou would strangle me if I tried to do that.”

The timing of the injury feels similar to Kia Nurse’s ankle back in 2016-17. It’s not a one-to-one comparison but both players got hurt and missed the end of the regular season, the Huskies struggled in their first game without them (UConn only beat Tulane by three without Nurse; beat USF by 10 without Samuelson) before figuring things out. Nurse returned sparingly in the AAC Tournament, but wasn’t 100 percent until the start of the NCAA Tournament.

2) The normally-reserved Napheesa Collier is not pleased

regarding the selection committee’s decision to place UConn at No. 2 were surprising for a couple reasons. The first is that typically the players are taught not to saying anything that would make headlines or give other teams bulletin board material. This was evident during the conference tournament when Olivia Nelson-Ododa repeated the line “I just want to go out there and help contribute,” to most questions she was asked.

But the second reason is that it was a change in personality for Collier. The senior doesn’t usually say a whole lot and is often reserved when speaking to the media. Samuelson joked ahead of Senior Day how Collier actually has emotion and personality, it just doesn’t show through to those of us on the outside sometimes. Ultimately, Collier’s comments display one of the key tenets of Auriemma’s program: Growing as a person as much as growing as a player.

3) UConn is in the ‘Bracket of Death’

While Auriemma was holding court with the media yesterday after the selection show, he asked if one bracket has been annointed as the hardest yet.

“Did they already say which is the hardest bracket? You know like in the world cup, the group of death. Is there a bracket of death? Has anyone established themselves being in the bracket of death? I haven’t heard it yet so we’ll wait and see. Tomorrow we’ll probably find out what it is.”

Auriemma didn’t even have to wait until the next day to find out. ESPN released their “expert picks” shortly after the bracket was unveiled and all three experts -- Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel -- all tabbed the Albany Regional as the hardest region. But Auriemma doesn’t buy into that notion.

“Here’s the fallacy in the tournament when you look at the bracket,” he said. “You see 16 teams, how many of them do you have to play? Four. So you look at 16, and go ‘What a bracket’. But you only have to play four. You just don’t know which four.”

4) Could UConn vs. Quinnipiac happen in the future?

With Quinnipiac back in the NCAA Tournament for the third-straight year, Auriemma was asked if there were any plans for UConn to play the second-best program in the state.

“[QU head coach Tricia Fabbri] and I have talked about it in the past couple years, so it’s not anything that hasn’t been thrown around a little bit. And who knows, it could happen. It just hasn’t happened. Part of it is our TV situation is so that we have very few games that aren’t predicated by TV. And then so many of them are recruiting based and where we need to be and where we need to go doesn’t leave a whole lot of games left. And then I’m sure they’re going to want a return game so that’s another home game we have to give up. So a lot of things go into it, I hope that we can pull it off at some point, I just don’t know when.”

Generally, the Huskies play between 12-14 non-conference games every year. It’s too late to set anything up for next season but in 2020-21, UConn has as many as five open spots and in 2021-22, up to 10 spots. If both schools want it to happen, they can make it work.

5) Bringing Towson back

UConn’s NCAA Tournament meeting with Towson will be the second time the schools meet in program history. But not even Auriemma remembered the first game with the Tigers.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever played Towson, ever,” he said.

Someone quickly let him know that they played back in Nov. 2011 at the XL Center in Hartford.

“Did we win?” Auriemma deadpanned.

The then-No. 2 Huskies did sneak away with a win in that one, 91-32. Bria Hartley lead the team with 24 points, five assists and four steals. Kaleena Mosqueda Lewis, Tiffany Hayes and Stefanie Dolson all reached double-figures. Laura Engeln, Brianna Banks, Michaela Johnson and Heather Buck all saw minutes for UConn as well.

6) Even at UConn, greatness is not a given

Yesterday, I watched a NFL Films short on “The Belichick Way of Greatness” where some of the top coaches in different American sports spoke about what makes New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick so special. But one comment by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski caught my attention, related to UConn.

“Everybody wants to win. Not as many people want to prepare to win at the level you need to prepare to win championships,” he said.

The sentiment expressed by Krzyzewski is almost identical to what Auriemma said about Collier after the Huskies won the AAC Tournament last Monday.

“Not every kid deserves [to win a championship] because not every kid is willing to work every day from October to March to prepare for that moment,” Auriemma said. “They just want to be in that moment and they hope they’re good enough for that moment. Well Phees doesn’t go into any big game going ‘Well I hope I’m good enough for this moment.’ She knows she good enough because she prepares every day for that moment. So she just goes into the game like ‘I’m having fun, you’re panicking. Why? Because you’re not prepared for this and I am.’ That’s it in a nutshell. That’s why she deserves everything she gets.”

Auriemma certainly belongs in the pantheon of great American coaches like Krzyzewski, Belichick, etc. The takeaway: Preparation is one of the biggest keys to being great.