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Geno setting expectations low for UConn women’s basketball in season opener

Plus, Shea Ralph talks about how the “two-minute conversation” with her husband helped the Huskies land their season opener.

Courtesy of UConn Athletics

If all goes well between now and Saturday, UConn women’s basketball will finally play its first game on the season on Saturday, Dec. 12 against UMass Lowell. For the Huskies, it’s taken a long time to reach this point. The team returned to campus in late July and have been practicing in some capacity ever since.

Then in September, the NCAA pushed the start date of the college basketball season back to Nov. 25, a move that was long expected. Later, it also canceled all exhibition games. UConn was initially scheduled to begin the year on Nov. 28 against Quinnipiac.

But the week prior, the Huskies were forced to pause all team activities after a member of the program (not a player or coach) tested positive for COVID-19. That wiped out UConn’s first four games.

After all that, the Huskies are less than 48 hours away from their first action of the season. So what is Geno Auriemma expecting? Well, not much.

“My expectations are not very high,” he said. “Like my expectations going into a preseason exhibition game would not be very high.”

After a four month preseason, Auriemma thinks his players are getting burnt out from so much practice time. To his view, the team has maxed out everything it can do in practice and needs live game action.

“We’ve practiced too much,” he said. “We’ve had way too much time on the court without any games. So, I don’t know that there’s any more time that you could spend on the floor to be any more ready to play that way. I think the time has passed when you would say, ‘Well, if we had more practice we would be better.’ I don’t think so.”

It probably doesn’t help that with seven players who have yet to play a game in a UConn uniform, practices haven’t exactly been efficient either. Whenever the staff tries to introduce a concept or install something new, it takes a while for the players to grasp it — if they do at all, according to Auriemma. That also prevents the team from progressing the way the coach would like.

“The part that’s more worrisome is how long it takes to accomplish things,” he said. “Some of that might be just youth and the other part might just be the inability to focus and lock in on ‘We have to be able to do these three things’ let’s say, and two days from now, three days from now, we could look like we haven’t done any of them ever after spending three days on them.”

Another matter is whether or not UConn should even be playing at all. Infections, hospitalizations and deaths are skyrocketing across the country. Five of the Huskies’ games have either been canceled or postponed due to the virus — now including their Dec. 15 matchup with Butler. Practically every team in the Big East has dealt with a shutdown at some point.

Auriemma said he and athletic director David Benedict pushed for college basketball to start on Feb. 1, which obviously didn’t happen. So UConn went along with the NCAA’s plans — “You’re not going to not do it,” as Auriemma put it — but the coach did express his reservations about continuing to try to force the season along.

“I don’t know. I know we have to try something but I don’t know that anything is working right now, from what I can see,” Auriemma admitted — though he also mentioned that his outlook could change depending on how Saturday’s game goes.

But in addition to the physical well-being of the players, Auriemma also expressed concern for their mental health. Since returning to campus, they’ve essentially been restricted from going anywhere apart from their apartments and the Werth Champions Center. In addition, they have to deal with all the interruptions and uncertainty that come with playing college basketball during a pandemic.

He said there are some signs that indicate the players are handling it well, but others that hint that they might not be doing so great.

“You see lots of signs that things are not okay, that they’re not there. Mentally, they’re somewhere else,” Auriemma said.

So isn’t having the opportunity to play basketball and get away from everything going on for a few hours each day a good escape for players? Plenty have argued that, but Auriemma’s not convinced.

“If you could do live your life normally and you didn’t have sports then you could say ‘You know, what if we added sports?’ I think they would think better about things, they would feel better mentally,” he said. “But right now, sports aren’t helping them feel better. In some ways, sports are making them feel worse because they can’t perform at the level they expect to perform. It’s just not possible.”

Ralph preparing for intra-family battle

UConn’s matchup with UMass Lowell is all thanks to an off-hand comment by assistant coach Shea Ralph — who’s married to River Hawks head coach Tom Garrick — in a conversation she wasn’t even a part of.

“I was leaving the office one day and one of our administrators was in the hallway and we were talking about how we had lost games and I said ‘You know, my husband just lost another game too.’ I’m literally walking past him, I wasn’t even part of the conversation. As I’m leaving, I’m not looking at him. He was like, ‘Well ask him if he wants to play us.’”

When Ralph arrived home, she casually brought it up to Garrick.

“I just sat on the couch was like ‘Hey do you want to you want to play us? They wanted me to ask you,’ and he was like, ‘Sure, we can do that.’ So I mean it was literally like a two sentence conversation at home.”

Though Ralph emphasized that they normally don’t bring their work home, she did say they’ve been playfully teasing each other about the game and put it on the family calendar. However, it also sounded like Ralph is happy that this will be a one-time matchup instead of a yearly event.

“I want him to do well. I want us to do well,” she said. “I guess that could be done both ways but someone’s gonna gonna leave disappointed. That’s the reality.”

Butler game postponed

UConn’s Big East will have to wait. The Huskies were scheduled to open against Butler on Dec. 15 at Gampel Pavilion but that game has been postponed after a positive test in Butler’s program. A makeup date will be announced at a later time.

Other notes

  • UConn returned to team practice on Dec. 3 — five days before it was expected to come back when it initially shut down. Auriemma explained that a change in CDC guidelines allowed for a reduced quarantine period.

“The CDC changed their requirements,” he said. “So we were all testing negative and CDC said you don’t have to wait 14 days anymore for everybody to test negative so we didn’t. It’s no more complicated than that.”

  • Though the Huskies will have a week off for Christmas, Auriemma said the players likely won’t be going home for the holiday. Since each player would leave the state, they’d have to quarantine when they return — which likely means they’d miss out on games.

“Right now, they aren’t going home for Christmas,” he said. “And that sucks, to be honest with you. But that’s life.”

  • UConn has a mostly clean bill of health entering the season opener aside from freshman Nika Muhl. The Croatian point guard hurt her left foot last week but returned to practice today and participated for an hour.

“She looked good today,” Auriemma said.

How to watch

Tip-off against UMass Lowell is set for 1 p.m. from Gampel Pavilion. Though fans won’t be allowed, SNY will carry the game with a stream on the NBC Sports app for in-market fans as well. For those outside Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the game will be streamed on the Fox Sports app.