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UConn women’s basketball back to work despite season uncertainty

The Huskies have returned to campus, but it’s far from business as usual due to social distancing.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn women’s basketball is finally back on campus, but head coach Geno Auriemma would be kidding himself if he acted like everything was business as usual.

“It’s not anything remotely resembling normal, but there’s a team on campus so that’s good. There’s stuff happening on the court so that’s good,” he said.

The Huskies reconvened in Storrs back on July 26 and all 11 players subsequently tested negative for COVID-19. In order to keep the team coronavirus-free, extra precautions have been implemented including the team being split into three “pods” with groups of 3-4 players living in the same apartment and working out together.

Group one consists of junior Christyn Williams, sophomore Aubrey Griffin, and freshmen Piath Gabriel and Paige Bueckers. Group two has junior Evina Westbrook paired with two freshmen, Autumn Chassion and Nika Muhl. Junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa heads group three with sophomore Anna Makurat and freshmen Aaliyah Edwards and Mir McLean.

As of Monday, each of the pods are under strict rules. They can only workout with each other at the practice facility and aren’t allowed to visit the other pods’ apartments. At best, the players can hang out outside as one big group as long as social distancing is maintained.

To this point, Auriemma is happy with both the pods and his players.

“They’ve been really responsible and very disciplined,” he said. “They know what’s at stake. If something happens to one of them, they’re gonna shut down the whole thing. They’re really holding each other and themselves accountable. I’m not surprised. I knew they would.”

Though Auriemma did admit early on that there are more one-on-one coaching opportunities when working with the players in small groups, he’s found it more difficult to implement anything team-wide. Aat the same time, holding three workouts per day instead of a single practice is a drain on the coaching staff.

“The challenge for our coaching staff is physical. Instead of working out with our whole team, you have three groups,” he said. “So you go out there, group one. Then they leave and group two after whatever the break is. Then group three. Like having three kids. By the time group three comes along, I kind of go ‘Yo guys, do whatever the hell you want.’”

Change does appear to be on the horizon, though. Auriemma said they can increase the size of the groups this week and by next week, he’s hopeful that they can host a full-team workout.

So far, the players have eased back in. The virus ended UConn’s season prematurely in March and also delayed the start of its summer session from late May to the end of July. Because of that, the Huskies have spent much of their time doing “basic, elementary skills work,” as Auriemma put it, like they’d normally be doing in June.

It also may take some time for the players to get their basketball legs back under them. The last time UConn held an official practice was back in March, so most of the team had gone five months without playing organized basketball.

“One of the players was saying ‘Coach, it’s been so long since I’ve been on the court in any kind of organized fashion,’” Auriemma said. “Five months. That’s the longest, probably, that they’ve ever gone without playing basketball.”

All those problems will likely disappear once a few weeks of workouts are in the books. Now, Auriemma is facing a challenge he’s never dealt with in his coaching career: Preparing his team for an indeterminate start to the regular season.

“The biggest challenge is I don’t have a schedule. So if somebody said in the old days, ‘Hey, your first exhibition game is November 3rd,’ alright,” he said. “So we know what we’re dealing with. Now the challenge is: how do I put my team together in that period of time? But no one is able to give you a we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

In Auriemma’s estimation, college football being canceled on the FBS level (UConn ended its fall season, as did the MAC, and Mountain West) signals the end of all collegiate sports for the rest of 2020.

“I told our staff this morning, ‘Look, once the rest of the country cancels football, then we’ll know there’s no fall sports at all. Then we’ll know there’s no basketball games in the fall, so there won’t be any basketball games in November,’” he said. “And then later on today the news comes out that it’s just a matter of time until there’s no football. So we know we have September, October, November. We’ve got four months. Four months. Of what? What are you supposed to do for four months?”

One possibility that has been rumored is the idea of a bubble, similar to what the WNBA, NBA, MLS, and NWSL have done over the last few months. Instead of playing games in teams’ home arenas and stadiums, which requires cross-country travel, the entire league plays at one venue with restricted in-person contact to the outside world. Auriemma is skeptical that can work for college athletics, however.

“You take the 11 Big East teams and put them in a bubble. Could you do that? That’s a lot of people in the bubble that you don’t realize have to be there. Does that make sense? Team doctors and trainers and managers and people living in a hotel room for three months,” he said. “Can it be done? Probably. But I don’t see it happening. And then what do you do at the end of the regular season? You gotta get in another bubble for the NCAA Tournament? What do you do, a 64-team bubble? Good luck with that.”

Injury updates

After spending much of 2020 rehabbing from left knee surgery, Evina Westbrook was cleared to return in May and is finally back on the court for workouts. Auriemma noted that the redshirt junior is still working back to 100 percent.

“She’s not 100 percent, she probably still feels it,” Auriemma said, before later adding that she needs to get back into basketball shape, not just rehab shape.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa, meanwhile, has been limited after she twisted her ankle in an early workout. It’s a minor injury, though, as Auriemma said the junior was back to running on Monday.