STORRS - For those who have said Geno Auriemma has had it easy the past decade or so coaching All-American after All-American with the UConn women’s basketball team, this is your year.
For the first time since the 2008-09 campaign, the Huskies start the season without a player who has won a national championship. For only the third time in that span, they start without a returning WBCA All-American. Four of the 11 players on the 2019-20 roster have not worn a UConn uniform before.
“These past two weeks I have had to do more than I’ve done in the last six years,” Auriemma said Tuesday before practice at the Werth Center. “This is not an exaggeration. Our staff hasn’t had to work at what we’re doing right now this much in the last six years. We think we can move on from Tuesday to Wednesday, and then we show up Wednesday and realize no we can’t. It has taken a lot of time and a lot of effort. That is what is different about it.
“Don’t get me wrong, the players have been great. It’s just really, really time consuming. Not that we are complaining. That is what we’re supposed to do. But if you ask, “What is the biggest difference?’ Things that used to take 15 minutes now take a half an hour. Things that used to take half an hour now take an hour. Things that used to take one day take two days. So I don’t know. Maybe I’m not as good a teacher as I used to be.”
Auriemma then smiled. The Hall of Fame coach with over 1,000 wins, a record 11 national championships, and the highest winning percntage in the game’s history is ready for the challenge.
Of course, there are still 11 days till the exhibition opener against Division II Jefferson University and another week after that to the regular season opener against California at Gampel Pavilion.
“I have surprised myself with how patient I am, and I think they appreciate that,” Auriemma said. “I think they also appreciate that I’m patient until I’m not. And then when I’m not, I’m not.”
UConn has three starters - guards Crystal Dangerfield and Christyn Williams, and wing Megan Walker - and top reserve Olivia Nelson-Ododa back but must replace two All-Americans in Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson. The ones expected to pick up the slack - transfers Evina Westbrook and Evelyn Adebayo, and freshmen Anna Makurat and Aubrey Griffin - are new. And the Huskies are still waiting word from the NCAA about Westbrook’s waiver request for immediate eligibility.
The first two weeks of practice are tough for veterans, let alone for those going through it for the first time.
“They want to learn, but it is hard when there’s a whole bunch of thrown at you,” Dangerfield said. “But we’ve taken a new approach to practice than in the other three years I’ve been here. We put everything in and then we went and played, took a couple days off, and now we’re breaking things down and making sure everyone understands how we’ll do things. They’re doing a great job since it can be challenging with so much thrown at you.”
The early schedule this season does work in UConn’s favor. The Huskies won’t see a team that figures to be ranked in the preseason top 25 until Game 8 - Dec. 8 here against Notre Dame. They will then play just two games in 23 days taking them to New Year’s.
All agree that there’s a lot of work to do.
“No one that is returning has surprised me because we all had a talk and understood that we had to be at a certain level coming back for this season,” Dangerfield said. “But our freshmen are pretty good, and they are going to help our team a lot. Hopefully they know that, and hopefully they know that we know that and that we are going to be counting on them.”
Dangerfield (hip) and Westbrook (knee) continue to work their way back from offseason surgery.
“I’m out here doing about everything,” Dangerfield said. “It’s just when a lot of stuff goes up and down the court I kind of take a step off because it’s too much pounding on my hip. My rehab is normal ice and medication to bring down the inflammation. Other than good, I’m pretty good to go.
“I’m getting anxious. It’s (11 days) before we play and I want to be as close to 100 percent as I can be.”
Westbrook is on a slower track on the comeback trail but said her knee is improving.
“I’ve been practicing like I am normal, and then sometimes it will get bad and I just have to take a couple drills off and then I will come right back in,” Westbrook said. “I just have to monitor how I feel because I haven’t played like this since May. So my body is still adjusting to my conditioning and running and pounding every day. I really have to let it get back to how I used to play.”
When Westbrook will play, though, is still up in the air.
If her waiver is not granted by the NCAA, Westbrook will sit out the 2019-20 season under NCAA transfer rules. She has two years of eligibility remaining.
“I don’t want anybody to think I’m trying to make the case for her publicly,” Auriemma said.