Geno Auriemma is no stranger to the postseason. His teams have played 97 conference tournament games over his 36 seasons as head coach and UConn has qualified for every NCAA Tournament since 1989, with the Huskies cutting down the nets eleven times during his tenure.
This year will be vastly different than any that Auriemma has experienced before, however. Because of the pandemic, UConn will enter a bubble for the Big East Tournament at Mohegan Sun and then one for the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio. That means once the Huskies go in, they’ll be restricted to their hotel rooms whenever they aren’t on the basketball court.
Typically, the postseason is a battle to see who the best basketball team is. This year, it’ll also be a test of mental fortitudes.
“Once you go there, you’ve got to cut your brain out of your head and put it in a jar and put it on mush and then sit in your room and stare at the walls,” Auriemma said. “Then whichever group of kids can put their brain back in their head out of the jar and then go out and play for two hours...those that can handle it the best...your reward is you go to Texas and you get to do it again.”
While there’s no way to truly be prepared for the bubbles, UConn’s players should be relatively well-equipped to handle that type of environment. Since the team convened on campus over the summer, they’ve essentially lived in a pseudo-bubble. They don’t have much freedom, but they can still get out of their apartments to go to the practice gym, the grocery store, or just drive around.
The bubbles for both tournaments will just take those restrictions up a notch.
“This is going to be a little more intense and more concentrated,” Auriemma said. “You’re not in your apartment, you’re in a hotel room and you’re confined to a floor.”
UConn knows the deal, though. For better or for worse, the only alternative to the bubble is not playing at all, which is a non-starter for the players. Paige Bueckers indicated that the team is willing to do whatever it has to in order to continue the season.
“I think we’re ready to sacrifice whatever we have to do to play,” the freshman said. “I mean obviously it’s going to be different. We’re going to be either at the practice gym, the main court, or our hotel so there’s really only three locations we can be at. We’re going to be in a bubble, we’re going to be located into our rooms only so I mean it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be different, but we’re willing to sacrifice and do whatever we have to do to play, especially in a huge tournament like this.”
For as crazy and upset-heavy as this season has been already, the bubble environment will likely make March Madness even more unpredictable.
“The teams, the kids that are best able to handle that kind of lifestyle are going to be able to play their best basketball during those during those three weeks,” Auriemma said. “But to be honest with you, some teams are not going to handle it well. Some kids are not going to handle it well. Some coaches are not going to handle it well. And it’s unfortunate but that’s where it is.”
Anna Makurat to return
After missing the last 12 games due to a lower leg injury (which SNY reported to be a stress fracture), Anna Makurat is set to return for her first game action since Jan. 21, albeit in a limited capacity.
“We are going to have Anna available, I don’t know for how long per game but we will have her available,” Auriemma said. “There will be an opportunity to play her some minutes. How much? I don’t know. I’m hoping that it’s 10 minutes, whatever the case may be. Just enough to get her feet wet again.”
While UConn came away with the lion’s share of the Big East’s postseason awards on Thursday, that didn’t stop the Huskies from feeling snubbed in a couple of areas.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa won Co-Defensive Player of the Year, but only landed on the All-Big East Second Team. Auriemma felt her exclusion from the ten-player first team had nothing to do with how she played and everything to with where she played.
“Because we got too many awards, I think Olivia should have been on the first team,” he said. “When you look at her production, you look at what she’s done all year long, you would say, ‘Wow, there’s nine other players in the league that had a better year than she did and contributed more to a team as good as ours? So, yeah, I thought she deserved to be on the first team.”
Evina Westbrook didn’t even earn Big East honorable mention despite ranking third in assists, sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio, 11th in defensive rebounding, and 11th in steals. Bueckers took particularly umbrage to the lack of recognition for the redshirt junior.
“If I could give an award, she would have mine. I mean she’s our MVP, our do-everything person. This is on and off the court. She does so much for this team,” Bueckers said. “She really sacrificed so much for us. She sacrificed her time, her money, her energy into just doing little things for us off the court. We haven’t been home in seven months and to make us feel at home and just to make us feel loved and just welcome. And just the stuff she does on the court as well she’s a leader, she’s our talking person, she’s our motivator, she’s our energy giver. And I mean she does everything for the team she’s our leader, she’s the freshmen’s mom. I can’t stress enough how important she is to this team and I mean, obviously, I’m a huge Evina Westbrook fan but I think she deserves every award there can be.”