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UConn WBB Weekly: Huskies open official practice with “real sense of urgency”

Geno Auriemma is surprisingly happy with his team through a week of official practice.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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Through one week of practice, UConn working with a “real sense of urgency”

When Paige Bueckers declared herself “Coach P” for UConn while she rehabs from a torn ACL during this season, most thought it would only be a matter of time before she got on head coach Geno Auriemma’s nerves. As it turns out, Bueckers is the one with the early gripe because from her view, Auriemma is going too easy on the team.

“Paige came up to me, she goes, ‘You wait until I’m not playing to be, like, really nice?’ I said ‘I only had two pain in the asses last year and only one of them’s back — and that’s Nika (Mühl). So I gotta be half as bad as I was last year,” Auriemma said.

The fact is through a week of practice, the coach doesn’t feel like he needs to be a hard ass — at least not yet. So far, the Huskies put in the work, they go all-out and most importantly, they listen.

“They go hard. They really compete,” Auriemma explained. “This team so far, I don’t have to coach them hard. I just tell them ‘This is what needs to get done,’ and 99 percent of time, it gets done. But I don’t have to do it the way maybe I’ve had to do it other years.”

It’s not that UConn has a wealth of returners with experience who know what it takes to perform at a high level and win games. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Every player on the Huskies comes with a question mark: Caroline Ducharme, Azzi Fudd, Aaliyah Edwards and Dorka Juhász have all played well in spurts but now need to do it for an entire season. Nika Mühl has been an excellent complimentary piece but now projects to be the main ball-handler. Aubrey Griffin missed all of last season with injuries and is coming off back surgery. Amari DeBerry did little as a freshman.

As for the newcomers, Lou Lopez Sénéchal dominated at Fairfield but will now need to show that she can perform at a higher level against better competition. The same goes for freshmen Ice Brady and Ayanna Patterson, who starred in high school but now need to do it in college. Inês Patterson was an 11th hour addition out of necessity.

The five starters and whoever works their way into the rotation will be counted on more than ever before in their respective careers. Nobody can has a clearly defined role, which means everyone must battle for their spot.

“Nothing’s given. Nothing’s taken for granted,” Auriemma said. “There’s a sense of ‘When coach says something, that’s exactly how it’s going to be.’ Not like ‘Well, I’ll start listening in March.’ There’s none of that.”

That all remains unspoken, though. The coaching staff hasn’t harped on UConn’s losses — in fact, Auriemma said he makes sure not to bring up the absence left by Bueckers’ injury. It’s not just her, either. The Huskies also lost three seniors who were major contributors in Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams. 49 percent of UConn’s minutes played and 52 percent of its total points from last season are gone and need to be replaced. The players are more than aware, even if they don’t say it out loud.

“There’s a sense — you can see it in their faces, you can see it in the way we practice — of ‘Damn, I got to be a lot better than I was last year,’” Auriemma said. “Ice and Ayanna and Lou — specifically those three new guys, there’s a, ‘I gotta be good.’ That’s all there is to it. There is no ‘Well let’s give them a little bit of time to get acclimated.’ No. There’s none of that. There’s none of that. There’s a real sense of urgency on the team.”

It helps that the Huskies got a taste of life without Bueckers last season when she missed 17 games due to a tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus. Ducharme and Fudd both stepped up in her absence and will be asked to do the same this year. However, the Huskies knew Bueckers would eventually return last year, so they only had to weather the storm. This season, she won’t be back to save the day.

“It helps me a little bit to know that we have some good players that can compensate for her not being there,” Auriemma said. “I wonder if they were able to compensate (last year) because they knew she was coming back. So there was always that to look forward to. Now, maybe, things change when at some point in the dog days of February, they realize she’s not coming back and we’re gonna have to figure it out on our own.”

UConn has the pieces to make it all work, even without the superstar. Still, it’s a massive challenge — and Auriemma couldn’t be more ready for it.

“It’s actually new and it’s actually fresh and it’s actually different right now. And if you’re not careful, every year runs into the next one, the next one, the next one and everything’s the same. If that was the case, then there’s a point where you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But every once in a while, you get a year like this year where it’s just different. It feels different. It looks different,” he said. “I’m having the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

Quote of note

Geno Auriemma never passes up an opportunity to have some fun with Paige Bueckers.

“The most fun is me telling Paige that ‘You’re lucky you’re not playing this year because you would have a hard time breaking in the starting lineup.’ That’s worth going to practice everyday, just saying that.”

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