At UConn it is all about the process and not winning streaks
First was the rather entertaining game at Maryland, the last of a series of challenging non-conference games in the first two months of the season. I'm sure you watched that contest so there's little reason for me to go into too much detail about what transpired on that night.
A few days later, however, there weren't quite as much people in attendance at one of the practice courts inside the CFE Arena in Orlando. UConn coach Geno Auriemma, realizing that some of the media who cover his team on a regular basis would be going straight from Maryland to Florida, invited us to watch the last 30 minutes of Saturday's practice which is often the case the day before home games. Well, 30 minutes turned into 45 minutes and probably approached 60 minutes and I loved every bit of it.
Late last season John Walters sat down with a bunch of people who have covered Auriemma's team the longest to get our take on what it is like to cover this dynasty. I told him that while I loved trying to capture the essence of some of those classic Tennessee and Notre Dame games, some of the best moments have come watching practice. I've seen iconic players like Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart come as in wondrously talented freshmen and day by day become even more, more versatile and more determined.
So about two hours after wrapping up an interview with former UConn great and current UCF assistant Nykesha Sales, I walked into the practice courts. Practices on the road are a little different because there are no male practice players to serve as the opposition and while transfers Azura' Stevens and Batouly Camara made the trip to the Maryland, they were not in Florida. (I'm sure many of you know those but just in case, per NCAA rules transfers need to pay their own way on road trips which is why you might occasionally not see the two of them at games).
It didn't take long for the Auriemma to start zinging his players. He openly wondered why Kai Nurse was the only perimeter defender to consistently meet his demanding standards and without hesitation blurted out "don't worry Lou, I'm not talking about you." Nurse was not immune from his caustic barbs as he told the team that when they were working on a variety of defenses to not try to fix things in the middle of a possession "right, Kia Nurse?"
There was also assistant coach Marisa Moseley's meticulous and thorough scouting report on UCF, the way they use ball screens and as I watched the game unfold, it was almost as if I watched game tape of the UCF team with the coaches as I watched the way they switched off screens and funneled players to the spots on the floor they wanted them to go.
The two most memorable moments of practice came courtesy of highly talented freshman Crystal Dangerfield. Dangerfield was wide open about 15-18 feet from the basket and quickly dished the ball to Samuelson in the corner. I don't even recall if the Huskies scored on that possession but I do remember Auriemma stopping practice for a second to make it clear to Dangerfield and everybody else on the team that not even looking at the basket in that situation was unacceptable and he wouldn't have recruited the players he did if he thought they couldn't make that shot.
The next time Dangerfield was in that situation, she took the shot and hit nothing by net. Later on Dangerfield was rushing up the floor and was being guarded by intern Chloe Pavlech, a very solid point guard during her days at Maryland. Dangerfield faked one way, went the other and Pavlech lost her footing. While she didn't completely fall to the ground, the players on the court began to crack up laughing. It was certainly not the first time they have seen Dangerfield's ball-handling prowess leave a defender struggling to remain on their feet.
Looking at the conference portion of the schedule, the hope is that teams like South Florida, Tulane and Temple have enough talent and gumption to make the Huskies sweat. USF has been able to rise to the occasion before especially at home while Temple has tended to be much more competitive when the game is in Philadelphia as opposed to when it is in Connecticut. The reality is that loading up with non-conference schedule with as many powerhouse teams as possible had something to do with the lack of tests expected to be coming in the conference portion of the schedule. Of course, just about every conference would have teams struggling to be competitive with the Huskies as games like LSU and DePaul serve as perfect examples.
This is the time of the year when Auriemma tends to turn up the pressure in practice to give his team challenges it may not see in actual games. That is the process that Auriemma seems to enjoy the most. He lets people like me keep him up to date on the latest winning streaks (the look on his face when I said to him that if his team hadn't squandered a 10-point lead in the second half to Stanford back in 2014 that the UCF game would be No. 135 win in a row was absolutely priceless). Auriemma knows this is a dangerous time of the year. Many of the teams UConn will be vying with to win the national championship have already played UConn and lost. They will be using their tough conference games and practice time to put themselves in position to turn the tables if they meet in the NCAA tournament. If UConn doesn't improve as well, all the accomplishments during the wins over seven ranked teams will be irrelevant. People complain about the margin of victories, wonder if UConn's dominance is bad for the sport but once reason why the Huskies have won as much as they have is that Auriemma doesn't settle for anything but the best - not the best his players think they have to offer but his definition of what level of play they are able to attain.