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‘Our program is our program’: How Geno Auriemma’s absence will affect UConn women’s basketball

The Huskies will enter the NCAA Tournament without their Hall of Fame coach after he recently tested positive for COVID-19.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 Big East Women’s Basketball Tournament - Villanova v UConn Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

All season long, Geno Auriemma has drawn parallels between this year’s UConn squad and the Huskies’ 1988-89 team. Both featured seven-player freshman classes and each made program history in the Big East Tournament — the ‘88-89 team won the program’s first conference crown while this year’s iteration captured its first since re-joining.

Another similarity that the current Huskies have to the 1988-89 team is that they’ll have to play at least a portion of their postseason games without Auriemma. In 1989, the Huskies’ head coach was suspended for the Big East Tournament after a scheduling error put UConn over the allowed number of games. This year, Auriemma will miss at least the first two games of the NCAA Tournament after testing positive for COVID-19 on Sunday.

That connection wasn’t lost on the coach.

“Hey, last time we had [seven] freshmen on our team, we won the Big East Championship at Seton Hall,” Auriemma said. “CD was the coach because I was in isolation. It wasn’t COVID isolation but it was a dumb mistake made by the University of Connecticut. So it’s ironic that we’re back in it.”

With Auriemma unable to travel with the team, associate head coach Chris Dailey will take over acting head coach duties, a position she’s familiar with. Dailey has temporarily held the title on four separate occasions: The 1989 and 1997 Big East Tournaments, two games during the 2018-19 regular season, and one game during the 2019-20 campaign.

Dailey is 10-0 in those games. With her — along with fellow assistant coaches Shea Ralph and Jamelle Elliot — Auriemma isn’t worried about missing time. While he’ll still meet with them on Zoom to help with planning, he expects to take a mostly hands-off approach.

“Our coaching staff, we work pretty well as a group and we talk every day,” Auriemma said. “We’ll talk every day before we set up whatever practice situations we’re going to do and I have complete confidence and complete trust and faith in Shea, CD, and Jamelle. I’m an innocent bystander right now so I’m just gonna sit back and watch them do their thing. CD is undefeated in tournament play so I don’t think you think you can get a coach that has a better record in the tournament than she does.”

It also helps that Auriemma and Dailey have been doing things the same way for over three decades now, so all the procedures will be the same as they always are. Even though the Huskies have one of their youngest teams in decades, all the players know the deal by this point in the season.

So how much will change for UConn without Auriemma there? Not much.

“Our program is our program,” he said. “We’ve been doing this since October. I don’t think anything’s going to change in the next 10 days. We have a certain routine, we know what we do, this is how we do it. We know how to get ready for teams so I’m not worried about that part.”

That doesn’t mean Auriemma and Dailey are exactly the same, though. While the structures won’t change, each coach brings their own style — especially when it comes to running practice. Dailey is all about doing everything in a timely manner and sticking to the plan. Auriemma leaves room for the abstract and isn’t concerned with how long it might take to accomplish something as long as it’s done right.

“CD’s practices are definitely a lot more efficient. She’s on a time schedule. She likes to get in and get out. We do a lot more running when she’s over practice,” Christyn Williams explained. “Coach takes his time. He likes us to get everything right. We go ‘til he says stop. That’s not necessarily the case with CD but it is a lot different. It’s tough, I say it’s tougher with CD running practice.”

“CD is more just a stick to the schedule type of coach. She has the practice plan and she wants to go through it and she wants the timestamps and everything to be in order,” Paige Bueckers added. “Coach, he’ll go off on a tangent for like an hour, two hours of just one thing on the practice plan and go over it until we get it right, so I think that’s the main difference. Coach, he says screw the practice plan a whole lot. CD, I don’t think she’d ever do that.”

So for now, UConn will have to get used to being on schedule and running more for the next two weeks with Dailey in charge. Auriemma will wait at home and provide as much input as he can through Zoom while his assistant coaches run the show. And if all goes according to plan, practices will be back to their usual, much longer length on March 24 when Auriemma is allowed to re-join the team.

“I just need them to win two games so I can get down here and try to help out on any games after that,” he said.