UConn women’s basketball’s season came to an abrupt end on Thursday when the NCAA announced it would cancel all winter and sports championships due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thus eliminating the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.
On Friday, head coach Geno Auriemma held a conference call to discuss a variety of subjects, mostly focusing on what’s next for his program:
Most college students think about spending their spring break either back at home or on vacation. UConn’s players and staff expected to spend the upcoming week on campus first preparing for the NCAA Tournament before hosting the first and second rounds at Gampel Pavilion next weekend.
Now that everything is off and UConn is transitioning all its classes online, Auriemma said he expects most of his team to return back to their families.
“Those players that can go home I’m sure are going to go home,” he said. “Those that have to stay for various reasons, whether that be rehab or they need to do some work academically...realistically, they’ll be on campus.”
One player that will likely remain in Storrs is Anna Makurat. The Polish native could theoretically return but with the US set to institute a travel ban from Europe for 30 days, there could be problems if UConn decides to return to in-person classes for April 6 — the day the move to online classes is tentatively set to end.
“It’ll be difficult for Anna to go home because if they say ‘Hey, school’s going to reopen April 1st or April 3rd or whatever and you’re not here, you can’t get back into the country, then that causes some issues going forward,” he said.
While the year ended a month earlier than usual for the Huskies, Auriemma doesn’t expect what happens in the immediate after of the season to change much.
“As soon as the season ends, everyone pretty much steps away from the game and it’s ended early so who’s going to step away from the game? I would envision that everyone is,” he said. “For how long? The same time we would normally take away. When it’s time for them — whoever it is — (to say) ‘Hey it’s time to start working out again, [Werth Champions Center will] be available. No question about it. As will the coaches if they want to work out.”
No roster changes expected
One of the biggest questions whenever a season ends is whether or not any players will decided to transfer out or declare for the WNBA Draft. Auriemma doesn’t expect much roster flux but also admitted it’s hard to predict.
“I don’t think any coach can really be confident of anything anymore. I was confident Azura (Stevens) was coming back and it didn’t work out that way,” he said. “So I’m sure everything will shake out in the next week or so when some of these decisions are going to have to be made. As I’m talking to you right now, I have no reason to think anybody that’s able to come back won’t be coming back.”
UConn will lose five players to graduation — barring an unprecedented decision by the NCAA to grant seniors an extra year due to the cancelled tournament: Crystal Dangerfield, Evelyn Adebayo, Molly Bent, Batouly Camara and Kyla Irwin.
That leaves six returners — Megan Walker, Evina Westbrook, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Christyn Williams, Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat. It would be stunning to see anyone in that group transfer considering they all played significant roles this season (Westbrook notwithstanding) and outwardly appear to be happy at UConn.
Walker is the only player that is eligible for the WNBA Draft since she turns 22 in November (though she still would have to complete her degree), but that would also be a pretty surprising turn of events. Even with her breakout season in which she won AAC Player of the Year and became a finalist for the Cheryl Miller Award — which goes to the best small forward in the nation — Walker still has plenty of room to grow at the collegiate level before she’s ready to make the jump to the pros.
While she undoubtably has the attention of WNBA front offices, it’d be hard to see her cracking the first round with all the talent coming out this year. The shortened season didn’t give Walker a chance to shine on the brightest spotlight, and nobody had a chance to ask her about the possibility of leaving early, but it still seems unlikely.
With sports gone, what now?
With NCAA sports, the NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS and NWSL all shutting down due to Coronavirus, Auriemma was asked the question that’s on the minds of every single sports fan in the US: What now?
“Over the last 24 hours, I’ve tried to rationalize all this,” Auriemma began, “and sports are a huge part of the American fabric. It has been for 100 years and then some. Sports are what we use in every local community to bring people together... Sports are what separates people from worrying about color, religion, race. Sports are the one thing that make people come together and rally around ‘My team versus your team’. And now, the one thing sports does, bringing people together in one place to share that experience, the sharing of the experience is what causes the people to get sick and some people to eventually die from this disease. All the great things sports bring us are a negative at this point in time.”
Auriemma didn’t have an answer to the initial question. But he did say that he hopes the suspension of sports for an indefinite period of time will allow everyone to regain the perspective of exactly what sports are in the end: a game.
“People make too big of a deal over winning and losing,” he said. “People treat winning and losing as if it’s life and death. ‘I’m going to war with my team. We were just in a big battle. We were fighting for our lives.’ All the crazy stuff that sports fans, coaches, players have talked about for years and years and years and maybe in some philosophical way, maybe this is a reminder that ‘Hey, this is a game, man.’”
“Let’s turn it back over to the athletes. That’s how I’m choosing to look at it.”