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UConn WBB Weekly: Geno Auriemma already seeing benefits of the Big East

The Huskies’ head coach has already mentally been in the Big East for a year now, he says.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Welcome to the UConn WBB Weekly, a recap of everything that happened in the world of UConn women’s basketball over the past week from the team that runs The UConn Blog and Storrs Central.

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In The News

Roster notes

A couple of tidbits on the roster from Geno Auriemma during the Virtual Coaches Road Show:

UConn will likely add a walk-on or two this upcoming season. The Huskies only have 10 scholarship players — five of which are freshmen. The last walk-ons on UConn’s roster were Tierney Lawlor (2013-17) and Briana Pulido (2013-16).

Though Evina Westbrook and her mom announced that the redshirt junior was done with rehab in May, Auriemma confirmed for the first time that she’s cleared to play.

Poffenbarger goes under the knife

Saylor Poffenbarger is recovering after she underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in her left hip in late April, according to the Frederick News Post. The 2021 commit felt a pain there around the new year but played through it so she wouldn’t miss the stretch run of her junior season.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar injury for Poffenbarger, though. As a freshman, she gutted through the same injury in her right hip before getting surgery after the season in April. Labrum injuries on one side often lead to an issue on the other side, which is what happened to Poffenbarger. Now, both labra are fixed and the she’s “a 17-year-old with two new hips.”

Despite the injury, Poffenbarger still averaged 21.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists en route to the semifinals of the state tournament before the coronavirus wiped out the rest of her season. She was also named Ms. Maryland Basketball by the Maryland Basketball Coaches Association.

During her recovery, Poffenbarger has been limited to just stationary shooting and dribbling along with some other light exercises. She’s hoping to be cleared to run in early July after her next trip to the doctor.

Collier named captain

Napheesa Collier hasn’t dealt with much of a learning curve in the WNBA. After running away with the 2019 Rookie of the Year Award and then successfully lobbying the Minnesota Lynx to draft her former teammate Crystal Dangerfield, Collier is now a team captain in just her second season. The Lynx’s other two captains are Sylvia Fowles (12th season) and Karima Christmas-Kelly (ninth season).

Quarantine keeping Geno away from retirement

Geno Auriemma has long said he’ll retire when he wakes up and doesn’t want to go to work anymore. Lucky for UConn fans, that day doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon.

“This is the longest I’ve been in one place in my life. I’ve been in Connecticut since the middle of March,” he quipped. “If this is what retirement is like, I’ve got no time for this. I’m not ready for this. No way, no how. I can’t do this.”

Legally, UConn officially joined the Big East on July 1, 2020. But mentally? Geno Auriemma has been there for over a year now.

“I don’t think today feels any different than yesterday,” he told reporters on a Zoom call on Wednesday. “It’s almost like I kinda felt we were in the conference from the time we had the press conference in New York City. I kind of felt like that was the day we officially joined the Big East even though I know today is the official day. But it just felt like, all this time, that we’ve actually been in the league.

“Now that it’s official, there’s no going back. They can’t change their mind.”

The move to the Big East was undoubtedly done with basketball in mind and though most of the excitement surrounds the men’s basketball program, Auriemma’s squad certainly needed the change. The Huskies never lost a game in the AAC — a perfect 139-0 record — and only two of those games were even within single-digits.

Now compare that to some of UConn’s recent games against its new conference mates. Last season against Seton Hall, the Huskies led by just four in the final minute of the third quarter and needed a late spurt to pull away. Two games later against DePaul, the Blue Demons got within four in the waning minutes before another late run from UConn. Then in the 2018 Paradise Jam, the Huskies barely escaped an upset bid from St. John’s.

Those three games in the last two seasons were substantially more exciting than almost every game UConn played over its seven-year tenure in the AAC. The higher level of competition where the Huskies can’t just show up and walk out with a win is what Auriemma is looking forward to the most in the Big East.

“I’m just looking forward to being in those situations more and more,” he said. “I have such great memories of all those arenas. I’ve never been to Butler so I’m really anxious to see that. I’ve never been to Creighton. But walking into Georgetown, walking into McDonough (Arena), it’s going to bring back a lot of great memories. Driving into Providence. For me, it’s those little things.”

But while Auriemma looked at the impact of the move on his own program, he also took a step back to look at the bigger picture.

The last round of conference realignment — which saw the Huskies get trapped in the AAC — was driven by football and TV deal. Because of that, regional conferences like the old Big East were broken up for whatever could get the biggest media contract.

As a result, UConn’s entire athletic department — not just the football and basketball programs — was forced to play a national schedule. The Huskies realized that was unsustainable. Now in the midst of the pandemic cutting revenue, the rest of the country seems to be figuring that out as well.

“Everybody got on their hands and knees and prayed to the football contracts and hoped you were a part of that,” Auriemma said. “A lot of people sacrificed a lot of things in order to be in that. We were in that boat. We wanted to be in that boat. But in the end, this pandemic has exposed a lot of flaws in the system.”

“You are giving up a lot of your soul and a lot of yourself for that money.”

By returning to the Big East, UConn became the first high-profile school to change conferences with basketball — not football — in mind. Though the Huskies just officially joined, Auriemma has already seen a difference.

“Our men’s basketball (team), if this nonsense (the pandemic) hadn’t happened, you wouldn’t be able to get a ticket to any of our men’s Big East games this year. It would’ve been like the old days,” he said on the Chaz & AJ Radio Show last week.

Auriemma then took it a step further, predicting the men’s basketball squad would return to its glory days as a perennial national championship contender.

“Getting back in the Big East, the guys are going to be exactly where they were before,” he said. “Trust me on that.”

Though the football team seemed to get tossed to the side when the news first broke, the early returns on independence are good with a strong schedule and linear TV deal. So far, Auriemma is impressed with how the program has taken advantage of its new situation.

“We’re independent in football...I think Randy Edsall is recruiting better players now that he was last year and the year before,” Auriemma said. “And our schedule, you see our schedule in football? It’s better than it’s been the last five years. So I think we’re way ahead of the game. We decide who we want to play, where and when. I think that’s pretty cool.”

When the wheel stopped spinning during the last bout of conference realignment, UConn found itself left out. But now, Auriemma feels like the school is finally taking control of its own destiny.

“I think we’re doing it the right way,” Auriemma said. “I think Val Ackerman and the Presidents in the Big East are doing it the right way.”

Best of Social Media

The Huskies will also have a new-look court to play on next season at Gampel Pavilion.

Auriemma said on the Virtual Coaches Road Show that he would go into Gampel Pavilion every day to see them put the logo on the court.

Batouly Camara’s book, A Basketball Game on Wake Street, was finally released as an e-book on Wednesday.

Mir McLean apparently has hops.

Hope the rest of the Big East had fun winning conference championships the last seven years while they still had a chance.

That wasn’t a joke.

Geno’s Top Quotes

First, Geno out of context:

  • “Yo, kiss my ass. I got 11 national championships.”
  • “It’s like the Three Stooges. Moe gives it to Curly, Curly gives it to Shemp and then they give it back to Moe.”
  • “I don’t know anything about anything. I could be president.”

Recently, both former and current Huskies have taken charge in using their platform for social justice and reform. Maya Moore, Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes have all stepped away from basketball to fight for change while current players like Christyn Williams has been active on social media in support of Black Lives Matter.

When asked about why his players seem so comfortable speaking up, Auriemma explained how he wants his program be about more than just basketball.

Throwback of the Week

As a varsity sport, the history of women’s basketball at UConn only dates back to 1974. However, the team’s history goes much further than that.