On Tuesday, Geno Auriemma described the 2020-21 college basketball season as “a rollercoaster ride unlike any we’ve ever been on,” in wake of the UConn women’s basketball matchup with No. 6 Baylor being canceled.
But those words continued to ring true on Wednesday when UConn announced that its Jan. 13 game at Xavier was postponed after the Musketeers paused all basketball activities due to contact tracing.
Right now, the Huskies are set to play on Saturday, Jan. 9 against Providence then again on Jan. 16 against Villanova. If that stands, UConn would end up playing twice in a span of 25 days through no fault of its own.
“We all like to think all of us are doing what’s best,” Auriemma said on Tuesday. “In this particular case, there’s no guarantee. There really isn’t. All you can do is the best you can do and keep your fingers crossed.”
The Big East will likely find a midweek game for the Huskies next week, though that’s easier said than done with five of the conference’s 11 women’s basketball programs currently shut down. But when UConn missed out on its game against Butler back in mid-December, the conference moved the Huskies’ matchup against Seton Hall up and added Creighton to the docket as well.
That isn’t the only option, though. While Big East play is prioritized in order to ensure UConn plays a full 20-game schedule, the Huskies could try to find a non-conference opponent to play, similar to how they added UMass Lowell on short notice. The trouble is that it’s significantly more difficult to schedule a non-conference game on the fly, as Auriemma explained.
“(Louisville head coach) Jeff Walz and I have been talking back and forth the last couple weeks about trying to find a time when we can play and every time something does come up that could look possible, something comes up that makes it impossible,” he said. “That seems to be the case for a lot of schools and a lot of conferences. Just when you think ‘Hey, I think we can work this out,’ somebody could say ‘Hey, Connecticut’s free,’ and then all of a sudden we get a phone call and say ‘Hey listen, you’re going to have to play so and so on Thursday, a conference game because they just lost a game.’ The circumstances, the possibilities are just — they’re just impossible.”
But with no true competitor for UConn in the Big East, those non-conference games against top 10 opponents like Baylor or Louisville are important for the Huskies. Though Auriemma said the quality of opponents doesn’t dictate how good a team may be, he wants his players to get the experience of playing tough games, especially without much competition in the Big East.
“When you have a lot of young players that are going to be playing a lot of meaningful, significant minutes, yeah, you’d like to have them be in those situations more often to be able to see how they may or may not react,” he said.
Far fewer marquee non-conference matchups have happened this season than in a normal year, however, so UConn isn’t alone in that regard. So in the end, though Auriemma would prefer to play top 10 opponents — hence why he schedules them — he doesn’t think they’re the end-all, be-all, either.
“If we don’t go as far as we could (in the NCAA Tournament), I don’t think it’s going to be because we didn’t get to play some of these games,” he said.
Huskies eager to play
As has been the case all season long with UConn’s cancellations and postponements, Auriemma was most disappointed for his players in regards to the Baylor cancellation. He said there had been a noticeable difference in the way the team practiced in preparation for the meeting and called it a “shame” that they’ll have to wait to face an elite opponent.
“My players have really been really good about practicing and I say that loosely because I got a young team that hates to practice,” Auriemma said. “But they’ve been really good about showing up every day and getting ready to play the next game and these last couple of days, they’ve really been ready. These last couple of days, practices have been different because they know what was coming. They know if we get on a plane and fly down to Baylor and we’re not ready, bad things are gonna happen.”
In fact, the players were so laser-focused on the task at hand that they initially didn’t believe Auriemma when he broke the news to them.
“When I told him they were really disappointed, obviously,” he said. “They thought I was kidding at first but then they realized I wasn’t kidding.”
It’s been a bizarre start to the season for UConn. Before its first game on Dec. 12, Auriemma was excited to finally playing a game after nearly four months of practice and workouts. The Huskies then played a tough stretch of five games in 11 days. When that concluded, Auriemma was looking forward to more getting more practice time to work on what they’d learned from the games.
But now, with so few games over the next couple of weeks, the coach — and his players — are once again sick of practice.
“Very few opportunities to actually work on what you’re practicing is very, very frustrating — as much for me as it is for the players. No question about it,” Auriemma said.
Could 2021 commits arrive early?
When the NCAA granted all winter athletes an extra year of eligibility this season, it opened the door for programs to potentially bring in its 2021 signees early.
In women’s basketball, UCLA added one of its top 2021 commits to its roster in Dominique Darius, while grad transfer Andra Espinoza-Hunter is playing earlier than expected for Seton Hall. Meanwhile, at UConn, the Huskies’ men’s hockey team brought in its top 2021 signee early as well.
So with a loaded 2021 recruiting class of Azzi Fudd, Caroline Ducharme, Amari DeBerry, and Saylor Poffenbarger, would Auriemma consider doing the same? It’s complicated.
First, the players would need to graduate early, which requires assistance and cooperation from the school itself. Then, Auriemma said the players would have to express a desire to come to UConn early and be mature enough to handle the rigors of college basketball.
Auriemma didn’t dismiss the idea outright, but he also didn’t close the door on it, either.
“Where are we with our players? Well one, they’re still in high school at their high school,” he said. “If and when — since it has become an issue and people are doing it — if all of a sudden, our four incoming freshmen find out ‘Hey, my season’s canceled. I could finish school tomorrow. Coach, can I come?’ That hasn’t happened yet. That doesn’t mean it won’t. That doesn’t mean it will. I’m just saying it hasn’t happened yet.”