Ahead of the first official practice on Friday, UConn women’s basketball’s players didn’t know what to expect. While they’d all been through workouts in the summer and early fall, there was a general nervousness about the start of actual practice, even for some of the veterans on the squad.
“They (the coaching staff) told us this year is going to be completely different. It’s going to be a bloodbath, day-in and day-out,” Evina Westbrook said. “So I don’t think any of us have ever experienced this, even Christyn (Williams) and Liv (Olivia Nelson-Ododa). So we just gotta be prepared.”
In reality, there may have been some exaggeration from the coaching staff.
“I just say that to scare the shit out of them,” Geno Auriemma said with a grin. “It still works, it’s amazing.”
Still, there is some truth to Westbrook’s statement, even if it may not be as graphic as she said. UConn returns six players who started a game last season, lost just Anna Makurat and walk-on Autumn Chassion and added two-time All-Big Ten First Team player Dorka Juhász from Ohio State and three freshmen ranked in the top 15 of their class.
On paper, the Huskies haven’t had this much talent on one roster in a long time — Auriemma likened it to the 2013-14 squad that featured the likes of Stef Dolson, Bria Hartley, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and company.
With loads of depth and talent, minutes will be at a premium, and the competition for that playing time officially begins with the start of practice. That’s what will be especially different for Westbrook and the other older players.
“They haven’t had this many players that want to play, that want to prove to them that ‘I’m as good as you are,’ or that ‘I can contribute as much as you can,’” Auriemma said. “So it’s a new since Evina’s been here. We haven’t had that. So now, out there on the floor everyday, there’s a lot going on that wasn’t happening before.”
Though UConn has typically utilized a shorter rotation over the same handful of years, Auriemma emphasized that’s by necessity, not preference. While he did acknowledge having the same players out on the floor for long stretches can result in better on-court chemistry, the coach also believes it can lead to complacency.
“Subconsciously, if you know you’re not coming out, there’s a little bit of a, ‘Hey, I’m good.’ Now, there’s ‘I’m not gonna play as many minutes as I did last year, maybe, and not because I’m not good enough.’ That’s the way it is,” Auriemma said. “So, your minutes and your time out on the floor is gonna have to be really productive at both ends of the floor — and that goes for all of them, not just one.”
That hasn’t been lost on the players. Even though official practice has only begun, the team has been extremely competitive during both summer and fall workouts. They aren’t afraid to battle with each other on the court.
“That’s why we’re so close. I can cut out whoever and go at whoever and they’re gonna do the same to me but afterwards we’re ‘Hey, what’s for dinner?’,” Westbrook said. “We’re at each other’s throats because we know that’s what’s gonna make us better.”
In fact, the competition has begun to spill off the basketball court and even into different sports.
“It gets intense. Like, we can’t play Uno without someone getting pissed off,” Westbrook said. “It’s ridiculous but, I mean, it’s fine.”
“We watched the volleyball game one night and after we stayed and played volleyball and now the whole team is convinced that they could all be on the volleyball team,” Azzi Fudd added.
Barring a change of sport from anyone on the team, the Huskies will have 14 players vying for roughly 8-9 spots, according to Auriemma. Even with two months of workouts already in the bag, the competition officially begins now.
“We’ve got a month to find out who they are,” he said. “We have a pretty good idea who some of them are but we don’t have a clear, concise idea who all of them are. That’s what the preseason is all about.”
There’s also something exciting about an official start date. While offseason workouts are valuable for individual player development, the team isn’t building to anything. Now with practice underway, the build-up to the season begins. Next Friday, First Night will be held for the first time in two years, allowing the players to get in uniform and play in front of a crowd (albeit, one that only consists of students) at Gampel Pavilion.
Soon after, UConn will have a closed-door scrimmage and on Nov. 7, Fort Hays State will come to town for an exhibition game. The season will finally kick off against Arkansas on Nov. 14. Even though that exhibition game is only a month away, it all begins with the start of practice.
“If you’re not excited for today, it’s only going to get worse from here,” Auriemma said. “So if you’re starting out in a bad way, that doesn’t bode very well. So I am excited.”