NEW YORK — You can’t live in the past.
Or can you?
You shouldn’t dwell on the negative.
Or should you?
Keep moving forward, some would say.
Geno Auriemma’s not too sure about that.
I happened to ask at Big East Media Day what intangibles the UConn women’s basketball coach was looking for in this year’s version of the UConn women’s basketball team, which on paper appears to be loaded and deep with what one rival coach, DePaul’s Doug Bruno, called the “perfect blend.”
Auriemma paused and thought for a full nine seconds, exhaled a couple of times before answering. So you knew something interesting was coming, as few coaches can articulate the psychology of winning and losing the way he can.
“There’s a certain way that really, really, really confident good teams carry themselves,” Auriemma began. “And there’s a certain way that teams that lost the way we lost last year carry themselves.”
UConn, having reached the Final Four some 14 years in a row, were stunned in the Round of 16 by Ohio State, 73-61, and sent home early from March Madness.
“So how would you know if that’s the case or not?” Auriemma asked.
“We as coaches will know, and that’s kind of been the history of UConn over the years. Something happens the year before, and then you see the evidence of it on the court, and you see it immediately. That’s what I’m kind of waiting to see, what’s the vibe that’s going to be on the court when we first take the court? Knowing what I know, from what I’ve seen so far, I think the vibe is going to be decidedly different from what it was last year.”
The Huskies, picked No. 2 behind defending champ LSU in the AP preseason poll and No.1 in the Big East, begin the season Nov. 8 vs. Dayton, and have a cluster of tough nonconference games following that.
Auriemma,69, who begins his 39th season, wants his team to wear that loss to Ohio State like a throw-back jersey; for players to play angry, hungry until they’ve earned the right to wear something new. He went on …
“But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know if that even exists anymore in the life of an athlete,” he said. “One of my players told me, ‘Coach, we’re taught to say, ‘Yeah, okay, we failed. Put that behind you and let’s move on.’ Yeah, you know what you get really good at? Failing and putting stuff behind you. Do you know what you have to get really good at? Failing, holding onto that until you get rid of it. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Over the summer, players talked about still feeling the sting of losing when they did, the way they did. There would be a different level of competitiveness. Auriemma started practice earlier than he usually does because he felt players were anxious to get going.
Whether it’s a legit concern or something out of his motivational tool kit, Auriemma issued an invitation for his players to show him how determined they are to wipe out the memory of March 2023.
“Every time you leave an NCAA Tournament, whether it’s a national championship game or an early loss, there’s this hurt, right?” he said. “You just put in all this time, and this is how it’s going to end? And the best teams I’ve ever had, the first practice the next year, it was still there. They were going to take it out on anybody.
“Now that lasts until the plane lands. After about a week on campus, they’re, like, ‘Put it behind you, don’t dwell, don’t carry over stuff. Why? Stuff like that, that needs to seep inside you and you’ve got to spend all year to cut it out, get rid of it.”
At the core of Auriemma’s argument here is the rash of injuries his program has had the last couple of years, and the temptation to use that as a reason to settle for less. There was a point last season when the Huskies did not have enough healthy players to play a scheduled game against DePaul.
After the Huskies completed the Big East Tournament, Auriemma felt it was time for his team to stop talking about injuries and fatigue. They were good enough to go deep into the tournament with what they had, he still believes, but they didn’t.
“Sometimes, it’s as simple as, not that anybody would do this, but, ‘You can’t get on me for not going hard enough. I’ve got to practice an hour and a half every day and now I’ve got to play 40 minutes, and you’re going to get on me for not going hard enough?'” Auriemma said.
“And two, ‘and if I don’t, what are you going to do, take me out?’ Not that people do that, but I think the knowledge that I’ve got to perform at a certain level, and if I don’t, Coach has got options, that works wonders on the psyche of players.”
There was one injury over the summer, redshirt freshman Jana El Alfy is out for the season with a torn Achilles. That affects front court depth, but UConn is looking to go into this season with 13 healthy scholarship players, including preseason All-American Paige Bueckers.
“If you need a breather, you’ll come out and you’ll go right back in,” Auriemma said. “If I’m taking you out for other reasons, it might not be as easy to get back in. That changes the urgency in practice.”
One of the perennial difficulties with trying to read a UConn women’s basketball team is that it’s hard for an outsider to know if an intangible quality of this nature is there until March, when the games get important and the caliber of resistance from the opponent is at its highest.
The coaches will know what they see and feel; the players, in their hearts, will know, too. Does last season’s ending still sting? Does the fire burn hot enough at the core to set things right?
“I guess we’ll find out,” Auriemma said. “I guess we’ll find out.”