UConn basketball coach Geno Auriemma forced to change strategy after injuries and 5-3 start

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — UConn basketball coach Geno Auriemma thought he'd put together the pieces to make a strong run at a 12th national championship this season.

Even after losing a potential starter in 6-foot-5 Egyptian national star Jana El Alfy to an offseason Achilles injury, his Huskies were loaded with talent.

Former national player of the year Paige Bueckers returned from missing the better part of two years with knee injurie s to join stars Azzi Fudd and Aaliyah Edwards and Connecticut started the season ranked No. 2 in the nation.

But the now-No. 17 Huskies (5-3) have struggled both on and off the court with new injuries and poor play.

“If somebody put a big puzzle on the floor in front of you and there were pieces missing, but they told you they’re on the floor here somewhere, go find them, that’s different than somebody throws a puzzle on the floor and is going, 'There’s two or three pieces missing and they’re not there,” Auriemma said. “So now make a puzzle that looks like the one you want it to look like. And it won’t. And the rest of the season will never look like the way I want it to look or the way I envisioned that it would look or that it would look like it needed to look at this point.”

The physical setbacks have included the season-ending loss of Fudd to a knee injury and continuing head and neck issues for starting guard Caroline Ducharme, who's been sidelined for much of this season.

The Huskies have had six different starting lineups in eight games.

“Not that it’s an excuse, but it is, it is reality for us,” point guard Nika Muhl said. “You know, you have to step away from, I wouldn’t say the way you usually coach, but like just understand that sometimes things are a little difficult and out of place and, you know, people have got to step in different roles.”

Auriemma has been tinkering. He went with a bigger lineup in an 80-68 loss to Texas last week, then came back on Wednesday starting two freshmen in a four-guard lineup against Ball State, putting point-guard Bueckers at forward in a 90-63 win.

He said brain-storming meetings with his assistants have been, “me ranting and raving and it’s those guys going, ‘OK, so why don’t we try this? No, I hate that. Why don’t we try this? No, I hate that, too. Do you like anything? No, I do not,’” he said. “I don’t like anything about what we’re talking about. But eventually we settle on something."

Auriemma said the biggest frustration for him has not been the injuries, but the lack of execution — a player failing to rotate in time on defense, committing a foul with a second on the shot clock or not making the correct pass.

He said it goes back to practice where players are often satisfied if they get a drill or a play right, instead of making sure they do it until they can't get it wrong.

“Somebody told me one time that coaching, and teaching actually, is being able to explain things to people who have a hard time understanding," Auriemma said. “And I always thought I was really, really good at that. And I’m not so good at it anymore.”

But things may not be as bad as the record would indicate. UConn's losses have come against No. 3 North Carolina State, No. 2 UCLA and the No. 5 Longhorns.

On Sunday, the Huskies face No. 24 North Carolina in the Basketball Hall of Fame Showcase at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. They still have non-conference games this season against No. 18 Louisville, No. 14 Notre Dame and No. 1 South Carolina.

Muhl said the players are still confident and expect the gauntlet they've been running will help them put the puzzle together before March.

“It’s difficult when you have all these pieces and then suddenly it’s just like everything is different the next week,” Muhl said. “So I feel like (the coaches) have been handling it well. And, you know, we’re going to go through ups and downs as every team is something different. But, you know, hopefully now we’re on that upside, not on the downside.”


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