At one point in his career, Geno Auriemma thought he was never going to win an NCAA Tournament game. In UConn women’s basketball’s first two March Madness appearances, the Huskies were bounced in their first game. Both losses were at home, with the latter coming after Kerry Bascom’s game-winning three pointer seemingly defied physics (according to Auriemma) and bounced out.
“Kerry — even to this day, if someone said pick one player to make a shot to win the game, I’d just as easily pick her,” he said. “That sucker hit the net and came out. I don’t know how it did that. It hit the rim twice, hit the net and came out and we lose.”
30 years later, Geno still feels like he can’t win, even when the scoreboard says as much. For six minutes and thirty-four seconds before practice on Saturday, Auriemma let all his frustrations loose. After two games against AAC foes where UConn didn’t play well, the coach responded to anyone who wanted to criticize his team for not winning every game in a 50-point blowout.
“Since when do you have to apologize for winning a game? Why, because we’ve won so much that even winning is not enough? I’ll be honest with you, that’s bulls—t. It really is,” he said.
“I understand why sometimes it just becomes a real weight to carry about. You say, ‘Well that’s why you came here.’ Really? They came here to win games. We’re 16-1 (UConn is actually 15-1), why do I have to answer why we’re not winning by enough or why we miss so many shots or why we turn the ball over. Like why? I thought the object was to win the game. That’s what I thought. If the object isn’t to win the game then why are they keeping score?”
For 25 years, the Huskies have set an impossible standard for themselves. Nobody has maintained a perch as one of the best programs in the country in that span of time except for UConn. Back in 2017 when Auriemma won his 1,000th game in a row, he explained the amount of pressure that creates on everyone in the program.
“I don’t know where to set our sights on,” Auriemma said. “Because wherever you set them, you’ve already been there, so that makes it very, very difficult right now. It does take a lot out of you, I admit.”
So after UConn’s two closer-than-usual AAC wins, the first response was to compare the results to previous seasons. The 12-point win over Memphis was the Huskies’ narrowest margin of victory over the Tigers — 22 points tighter than the next closest. Thursday’s UCF game, a seven-point victory, was UConn’s second-closets game ever American Athletic Conference play.
But that’s exactly Auriemma’s point. He’s knows this year’s squad isn’t the same caliber as the Huskies’ best. He’s said it himself on more than one occasion. To him, it’s simply part of life in college basketball.
Just look around the rest of the country. Oregon has its best team ever, features arguably the best player in the country and beat the US National Team. But it already has two losses, including one to an unranked Arizona State team. UConn has lost multiple games in a season four times in the last decade and hasn’t lost to a team outside the AP Top 25 since 2012.
“How come this s—t happens to everybody in the country but us? So you know, sometimes you look and say ‘Well you’re not what you used to be.’ Who is? Who is? Tell me who is where they used to be and stays there for 25 years. Nobody. Nobody but us,” Auriemma said. “So when it doesn’t look good, it’s ‘What’s wrong with you guys?’ I think, to be honest with you, my kids are sick of this. My kids are sick of answering questions about why we’re not what we used to be, why we don’t win like we used to. Why things don’t look like they used to. They are really kind of sick of listening to it. Sick of answering those questions.”
After losing the program’s most prolific scoring duo in Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, UConn has struggled to find its identity on offense this season. With sixteen games already in the books, that struggle has been very public at times. But with who the Huskies are relying on, Auriemma believes it’s unfair to expect this team to be a machine like past UConn squads.
“There’s not one kid playing on this team that has the same role they had last year. Not one,” he said. “So everything that happens to them is brand new. So there’s going to be times where it looks really, really bad. It looks lousy. It looks disjointed. It looks like it’s a struggle because a lot of these guys were like the second, third, fourth, fifth options on offense last year.
“We’re asking (Olivia Nelson-Ododa) to be like Pheesa. There’s not a player in the country like Pheesa anywhere, last year or this year. Now we’re asking a kid who hardly played last year to be Pheesa. It just can’t happen. Can’t happen. We’re asking Anna (Makurat) to come in here and be like Lou. It ain’t going to happen. It’s not going to happen.”
A UConn team on a “down” year is still better than 95 percent of the country, though. That’s why the Huskies were ranked No. 1 this season for a few weeks and are still at No. 4 after losing to Baylor.
It’s easy to understand where Auriemma’s frustration comes from. The Huskies aren’t allowed to have bad nights — let alone bad years. It’s draining having to maintain an standard of perfection while facing every team’s best shot.
These are problems every other school across the nation wishes it dealt with. It’s what makes UConn, the gold standard in the sport.
“For the last 25 years, year after year after year, we’ve become death and taxes. We’re automatic,” Auriemma said. “You can count on three things, right? Death, taxes, and UConn being number one in the country and undefeated and rolling through everybody and being up 40 at halftime and the parade is what day? Where’s the parade route in Hartford?
“Then all of a sudden you realize this s–t ain’t easy as we make it look. Because if it was, there wouldn’t be a lot of teams that used to be, or are, or are supposed to be really, really good getting their ass kicked on a regular basis.”