For a program that prides itself on stability, a lot has changed for UConn women’s basketball since its last NCAA Tournament appearance.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams are the only players still on the roster from that team. Back then, Evina Westbrook played at Tennessee and Aubrey Griffin was the only other current player who had even committed to UConn at the start of the tournament.
Jamelle Elliot was the head coach at Cincinnati (for a little while longer) while Geno Auriemma, Chris Dailey, and Shea Ralph were all handling their normal duties on the Huskies’ staff.
Today, just three of UConn’s 12 players have even participated in the NCAA Tournament while Dailey is the acting head coach with Elliot and video coordinator Ben Kantor as her assistants, because Auriemma and Ralph are quarantining back in Connecticut.
On top of that, the entire tournament is being held inside a bubble in San Antonio with questionable conditions.
While this is technically UConn’s 32nd NCAA Tournament appearance, it’s unlike anything the Huskies have seen before.
“It’s different,” Williams said when asked to compare this year’s tournament to her last. “We usually have our coach here, you know? That’s the biggest difference. We’re stuck in our rooms, usually we can go out of the hotel or whatever. It’s just different things due to COVID and the protocols that we have.”
The opening two rounds will also be UConn’s first NCAA Tournament games without Auriemma at the helm. Even though Dailey has guided the Huskies to a 10-0 record as the acting head coach in four different stints, the stakes have never been this high.
“If we lose our season’s over, so that’s definitely a different feel to it,” she said. “You want what’s best for the players and you want to make sure that you’re doing everything that you can to give them the opportunity to move on.”
Still, the NCAA Tournament is how UConn’s season will be defined. The team’s lack of experience, Auriemma’s absence, or even the global pandemic still raging don’t change the expectations for this team.
“We talk about [how] there’s a different UConn team [in the] regular season and NCAA Tournament and I think that they embraced that,” Dailey said. “They practiced last night like a team — a Connecticut team — getting ready to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
What makes CD special?
Auriemma has often joked that Dailey was his first recruit at UConn. When he got the job, the two knew each other through assistant coaches committees and other coaching stuff but weren’t “really good friends,” as Auriemma put it.
Still, Dailey left a strong impression on the then-Virginia assistant during their limited interactions.
“The more time that I spent listening to her and watching her in action and seeing how she how she operated and went about her business... I just thought, ‘If I ever have an opportunity to be a head coach, that’s certainly someone that I would want to be at my side,’” Auriemma said.
It’s safe to say the partnership has worked out well over the last 36 seasons. While Dailey is routinely credited with helping to build UConn into the nation’s top college basketball program, the exact nature of her contributions doesn’t get as much attention.
“I would say the number one thing is her consistency. You know what you’re going to get every single day. There are absolutely no surprises. You know exactly what to expect and the players know exactly where she’s coming from,” Geno explained.
“There’s never any, any doubt that she has the best interest of the players at heart. She’s very detail-oriented, very thorough, very persistent. She’s organized and she kind of has an even-keel demeanor. She’s not going to be volatile like this, like I am sometimes. So there’s a lot of stability that you’re going to get.
“Don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot of little things that that only CD can do that kind of irritate the players. I get a kick out of it but sometimes they don’t. But in the end, the one thing they do know is that every morning she wakes up and every night she goes to bed, and she only has one thing in mind and that’s the welfare and the success of our players and our team. They know that. And I think that’s rare in today’s world.”
Dailey had only a slight disagreement with that assessment.
“First of all, I’m not as boring as he made me sound so it’s not that I’m the exact same every day,” she said. “Just so that you know.”
Activities in the bubble
16-seed High Point, UConn’s opening round opponent, will be making its first NCAA Tournament appearance this season. Two years ago when the Huskies faced Towson — another program making its debut in the big dance — Auriemma was asked what he remembered about UConn’s first NCAA Tournament back in 1989.
“I didn’t know what to do to get them ready,” Auriemma reflected. “I wasn’t gonna panic and overdo it and start coaching like John Wooden or something. So one day we played wiffle ball. I was just trying to get their minds off of that.”
While wiffle ball may not be on the schedule, the Huskies will still have plenty of activities to keep themselves occupied over the next few weeks in the confines of the bubble. Though classes and schoolwork will be their main focus when they’re not on the court, they’ll still have plenty of time for fun.
“We play cards and we play UNO,” Williams said.
“CD’s had some activities for us,” Nelson-Ododa chimed in. “Our little Texas Showdown stuff, our little games. She does a great job of having us have little activities and fun things to do, especially on the road like this.”