It’s been a month since UConn women’s basketball reconvened on campus and began its summer workouts. In that time, head coach Geno Auriemma believes his team has made notable progress.
“The improvement from June 1 to today has been significant. You can see it in pretty much every player,” he said. “And it’s only going to get better, provided they stick with it throughout the rest of the summer.”
Auriemma spent much of last preseason praising the competitive drive of last year’s freshmen, something he felt had been lacking in the program. Now that those five players are sophomores, he’s expecting that mentality to spread further across the team.
“It’s a much more competitive situation than we had last couple of years,” Auriemma noted.
“If you don’t compete, you stick out,” he added later. “So far, I like what I see.”
It helps that this offseason will not be affected by COVID-19 protocols that only allowed small groups to be on the floor together at a given time. UConn also returns nearly its entire roster (losing Anna Makurat and walk-on Autumn Chassion) while adding three highly-ranked freshmen. The competition for playing time is going to be fiercer than ever.
“You have to perform at a real high level every day if you want what they all want. They want to have an impact. And I’ve already had a couple of them say to me, ‘Coach, obviously we know that some of us are not going to play the same amount of minutes as we played last year.’ Yeah, because we had guys played 37, 38 minutes last year, so they know that’s not going to happen.”
Morgan Valley’s unique perspective
When assistant coach Shea Ralph left Auriemma’s staff to take the head job at Vanderbilt, UConn went in a slightly different direction by hiring Morgan Valley. Though she played for the Huskies like Ralph and fellow assistant Jamelle Elliott, Valley wasn’t a star player or a key contributor on the court. She averaged 2.6 points, 2.4 rebounds and shot 35.7 percent from three in 11.4 minutes per game.
“She came out of high school, great player, really highly recruited by everybody in the country, and then got here and through various circumstances, her impact on the court wasn’t that great but her impact off the court was immense and it stayed that way,” Auriemma said.
Because of that, Valley didn’t have the same experience as most of UConn’s other assistants. It’s a fact Auriemma views as an overwhelming positive.
“That’s probably why she was in such demand by coaches all over the country,” he said. “She gives them a different perspective than they would get from, say Shea or JJ (Elliot) or Tonya (Cardoza), or guys that had a lot of success on the floor. [Valley’s] success was all about the process and working at it.”
So far this offseason, UConn has extended series with South Carolina and Tennessee while adding a home-and-home with NC State. Auriemma always wants his team to play a tough non-conference schedule but he credited associate athletic director Neal Eskin with making that a reality.
“Neal does an amazing job building relationships with other universities to put games together,” Auriemma said.
In the past, UConn has had trouble finding willing non-conference opponents because teams are afraid of getting blown out. Lately, they’ve had slightly better luck. Perhaps because UConn is slightly less of a towering juggernaut, but also because athletic departments know it benefits them to host the biggest brand in the game.
“Yeah, there was a lot of time... when we couldn’t get games because people didn’t want to play but I think we solved that problem a little bit,” Auriemma said. “Now we go right to the ADs, say ‘You know, your coach is being a little bit short-sighted not wanting to play us because you know when we come down to your place, you’re going to sell out.’ And then usually the game gets scheduled.”