For most of this season, it has seemed that UConn coach Geno Auriemma was not having any fun.
How do I know? Well, I don’t, actually. But all external signs support the idea.
I have covered the UConn program since 1996, which, I believe, makes me the second longest tenured Connecticut-based reporter of the team. (Carl Ademec of the Journal-Inquirer in Manchester has apparently been covering the team since he was a child).
During that long stretch, I have experienced several hundred Auriemma press conferences. Historically, he is informative, Philly sarcastic, humorous, and open.
This season, he is often glum. He sometimes, though certainly not always, gives almost Belichick-like non-answers, which before this season was just not a part of him.
Consider this exchange after the Huskies’ close loss to Louisville in December:
Q: “Geno, Caroline [Ducharme] outscored your three seniors by herself. At least one of them had a really awful game. What’s going on with that?”
Auriemma: “Beats me.”
Q: “Could you elaborate on that a little bit?”
Auriemma: “Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know. Caroline’s really good. You have an explanation?”
Auriemma has answered “I don’t know” to maybe three questions in the previous 20 years, but has routinely used that phrase this season. It is a big change, and I have no good explanation for it that does not descend into psycho-babble.
After an embarrassing loss to unranked Villanova on Feb. 9, I had a chance to ask him the question. He actually sounded a bit like himself.
Q: “Geno, you’ve talked about how teams around the country kind of all look a little beaten down by the last two years and all this crap. And for your team, this has been just kind of a roller coaster with no predictability. And this isn’t meant to be cheeky, but are you having any fun this year?”
Auriemma: “I mean, I think the circumstances being what they have been the last two years, it’s kind of like half full, half empty.”
“You want to hope that the next day is better, and the next day is better, and the next day better. And then you get hit with: no, it’s not. No, it’s not. No, it’s not. And you can’t act like the sky is falling. So the roller coaster goes down, and then it goes back up. And while you’re down, you’re down. And when it goes back up, you feel like you’re on top of the world.”
“Now the problem is: staying there has become very challenging. So I always know that when it’s down, it’s going to go back up. Is it fun to be in that situation? No. It’s not. It’s not any fun at all.”
“But every coach in the country is going through this, so it’s not like it’s just a few of us or a few people that are dealing with these kinds of setbacks and injuries and those things. You know, you see some really good teams get blown out and you wonder like ‘how does that happen?’ You’ve just got to roll with it, man. Do the best you can.”
Certainly, this has been a challenging season. Paige Bueckers, regarded by many as the best player in the nation, suffered a serious knee injury while fatigued at the end of a 19-point defeat of Notre Dame in the fifth game of the season. Her backup, Nika Muhl, was also injured.
Highly-anticipated freshman Azzi Fudd was sidelined for 11 games with a foot injury. Audrey Griffin, a dynamic energy player off the bench, is lost for the season to back surgery, and did not play one game. Starter Christyn Williams was unable to play in a loss to Oregon due to COVID restrictions. Dorka Juhasz missed two conference games, and spends little time in practice so she can manage her injuries. Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Ducharme missed four games, including a loss to unranked Villanova. UConn has had 10 different starting lineups this season.
Other than the string of injuries, perhaps most frustrating to the coach and to Husky fans, has been the spotty performance of the three seniors on the team, Williams, Nelson-Ododa and Evina Westbrook.
Auriemma is clearly distressed that he was not able, for much of the season, to spur them into playing to their potential – or even to their best of last season. Rarely did all three shoot well in the same game. Williams rarely used her greatest asset – driving to the hoop – with any regularity, even though her threes were not falling. Nelson-Ododa seemed unwilling to be a post scorer. And Westbrook, the glue of the team last season, seemed disengaged and frequently passive. Furthermore, Aaliyah Edwards, the Big East Sixth Woman of the Year as a freshman, was largely missing in action prior to the Tennessee game.
“I say the same things to everyone else that I say to Caroline [who has become the unexpected star of the team since Bueckers injury],” Auriemma said. “But it doesn’t seem to have the same effect.”
The team more often than not spent long stretches immobile at the three point line. Last season, standing around watching Bueckers be great was understandable (as it had been for teammates of Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart.) But this year, the team should have matured. Instead, they relied on Bueckers for most everything. When she was injured they were lost, and have been very slow to find their way.
There was not enough movement without the ball. They committed far too many unforced turnovers. The team seemed unable to master a traditional UConn strength: crisp passing to set up efficient shots. Assists were down. They played especially poorly in the fourth quarter of games.
No wonder Auriemma was morose.
To be fair, the coach has regularly praised the defense. “I think our defense today was really, really good,” he said on more than one occasion. That’s his way of saying ‘frequently outstanding.’
That defense has been a pleasant surprise. The Huskies have held a crowd of high-scoring offenses to well below their averages:
South Carolina: 10 points and 10 shooting percentage points below average
Notre Dame: 25 points, 16 percent
UCLA: 16 points, 17 percent
DePaul: 14 points, 4 percent
Tennessee: 13 points, 12 percent
That defensive consistency is more surprising because UConn has had so many players miss games that the defensive alignment has shifted regularly.
But the communication that is working well for the defense hasn’t been doing much for the offense.
The beginnings of change
Ducharme, the No. 5 recruit this year, was left on the bench to start the season despite performing marvelously in practice. The 6-2 freshman guard averaged 1.3 points and 1.8 rebounds in just over six minutes in the first seven games. Inserted as a starter by necessity with both Bueckers and Nika Muhl injured, Ducharme averaged double digits in all but one of her first 11 starts. During that time, she has averaged 17.6 points and 4.4 boards. She blocked 10 shots in those starts, and her length and energy on defense has been a plus.
Of course, then she was hit in the head in consecutive games, and missed four games in February.
Like Bueckers, Ducharme moves well, and almost constantly, without the ball. Her perpetual motion on offense sets and example for her team.
As the injuries mounted, Nelson-Ododa began to play like a senior. She was a defensive stalwart, either leading the conference, or second, in blocks, with 1.8 a game. Her length and agility anchor the Huskies’ active defense. Most surprisingly, she leads the team with 3.9 assists per game (seventh in the Big East). She and Juhasz have shown some dominant high-low moments in games. Finally, though she does not score as often as she should, she is second in the league with a .591 shooting percentage.
The No. 1 recruit started the season tentatively, showed some hints of her deep talent, then missed 11 games with a foot injury.
On her return against Tennessee, she dropped 25 points on 9-16 shooting, with seven threes. In the Villanova loss, she had 29 points on 11-20 shooting and three steals. After that game, Auriemma had one player he could count on consistently.
“Well, I think I think Azzi is a superb basketball player,” he said. “And I think sometimes when you can shoot the ball the way she shoots it, people tend to label you, you know, ‘wow! She’s a great shooter.’”
“And I think as the game seemed out of reach, for all intents and purposes. But she started making plays that basketball players make. And she threw a couple passes that basketball players make.” [Fudd scored 13 points in the fourth quarter of the Villanova comeback, which fell short by just two points.] And that’s a great sign for a kid who’s a freshman who can score and can make threes and can find other ways to contribute. You watch Azzi play in practice and you realize all the time she’s more than a shooter.”
“This is only her second real game, you know, where she’s been kind of injury free. So it takes time, and she played all 40 minutes. So you go from not playing at all, to playing 40 minutes. Not ideal, right? So I don’t worry about her. That’s one person I don’t have to worry about.”
Fudd has scored over 20 in half her games since her return, is shooting .563, 45 percent from three (which would place her second in the league if she had enough attempts), and averaging 17.5 points per game.
Muhl steps up
It has been obvious for a while that Muhl is a pesky, talented defender. But teams dared her to shoot. This month she has become a legitimate scoring option, making teams guard all five players. The difference in the flow of the offense has been obvious.
As the Huskies surged in the last five contests, Muhl shot .520, 53 percent from three, averaged 4.2 rebounds, and had ten steals.
Her leadership and energy have been the spark to the team – when it sparked – all year. She has 22 assists in the last five games.
“Nika’s very conscious of getting the ball to people, Auriemma said. “It makes her feel good.”
“So one of the things that Nika always said when we were recruiting her was, ‘you know, when you score, you’re happy. And when you get an assist, two people are happy. You and the guy you gave it to.’ And she lives that every day.”
UConn basketball arises out of a conference loss
The post-Villanova headlines emphasized UConn’s first conference loss in 150 games. The less detailed stories missed the astonishing final 2:30 of that game, where the Huskies nearly erased a 15-point deficit, falling by just two points.
During those minutes the team defense was stifling, the passes were crisp, the players were active, and UConn forced the pace without rushing. They did all the things that they had failed to do most of the season (except playing good defense).
That effort, even in a loss – or because of the loss – somehow transformed the team’s approach to the next four games. They stomped a DePaul team they had beaten by just two points (on a Ducharme drive) in late January. They beat a good Marquette team on the road by 14. Then they demolished Xavier, 89-35, and Georgetown, 90-49.
Juhasz acknowledged that the last minutes against Villanova gave them a roadmap and the incentive to pick up their game
“I mean, definitely,” she said, “that just showed that we should have been there from you know, the start of the game. And that was something that was more like the disappointing part and like, ‘this is not how we came out and we could have done that.’”
“We can do that the whole game. So that [performance] was very disappointing for all of us. Watching the come back and [seeing] that’s who we are, not what we did [most of the game]. We just got to, you know, look back at this game and just keeping coming out aggressive.”
Juhasz said she the the other posts took responsibility.
“I think coming out of the Villanova game, we felt that as bigs, we could have done a better job and you know, the loss was on us as much as the guards,” she said. “We did do very well down low [against the Blue Demons] using our height advantage, and then just feeding off of each other. So I think that we had good connection, chemistry in that way.”
Everyone gets healthy – except the One
Against DePaul and Marquette, Nelson-Ododa and Ducharme were still bench-ridden, but the renewed intensity and the stellar play of Fudd, Williams, and Juhasz made the Huskies look like a very good team. Maybe even an Elite Eight kind of team.
When those two returned to play against the more limited talent of Xavier and Georgetown, the offense began to look like, well, UConn.
Crisp passing. Finding the open shooter. Penetrate and score or penetrate and kick. Actually hitting outside shots. Williams making moves on drives that literally floored the defender, scoring 62 points in four games. Edwards scoring 38 points and grabbing 24 boards (13 offensive) in those games, shooting 53 percent.
The defense holding the Blue Demons to 33 percent shooting, Xavier to 24 percent, and Georgetown to 32 percent.
But, turnovers remain a ghastly exception. Against Georgetown, the Huskies turned the ball over 10 times in the first quarter, and seven in the fourth quarter, with just four in between.
So, despite a 31-point win over the Hoyas, Auriemma is still, perhaps, not having very much fun. There is still much to do. And, really, he’s always been a glass half empty kind of guy.
“I liked the 21 steals. I didn’t much like the 21 turnovers,” he said.
Overall, though, things are looking pretty solid for UConn as they finish out with three home games heading into the Big East Tournament.
In the last five games (including the miserable one at Villanova) UConn is shooting .523 as a team, .400 from beyond the arc, and forced 96 turnovers (committing 59). They outscored the opponent by 130 points.
“This was the intent when the season started,” Auriemma said after the Georgetown massacre. “That we were going to play like what you saw today.”
“That was the plan you know, starting in October, and then plans went awry. Maybe we can still get some semblance of it because when it’s clicking it’s pretty good. It’s a lot of good stuff.”
Maybe he smiled. A little.
He’s clearly happy to have most of his team healthy. He has been playing eight to 10 players for the first time all year. That allows the Huskies to press, to double-team. That gives them hope that they can improve for the Tournament season.
“For most of this year, we only had one way to play, and we hoped that it worked against every team,” Auriemma said. “But you’d like to go in and say: ‘This team can’t handle this. Let’s do that. This team can’t do that. You want to be able to do that.’”
“I think there’s some things that we can do that are you know, I don’t want to see easily-implemented, because nothing’s easily-implemented with these guys anymore. But there are things that we can add along the way. And up until now we haven’t had the ability to do that. We won’t be great at it. We just need to be decent at it.”
Tournament opponents should be nervous. And what will they be like if Bueckers can play in the post-season?
“When is Paige gonna be back?”
Finally, there is the unanswerable Big Question: “When is Paige going to be back?”
The answer is: “I don’t know.” “There’s some like really good days,” Auriemma said, “where she feels like ‘I can play tomorrow.’ And then there’s days where she’s reminded: ‘No, you can’t.’ So there’s more good days than not, but she’s not going to be playing this coming week.”
Ultimately, Bueckers’ return will be her own decision.
“When you’re coming off an injury, the only person that knows when it’s time, is athlete themselves,” Auriemma said. “You have to get to a point where you trust it, and you feel confident in it. And that’s probably the last thing.”
“Athletic trainers can do their job. The doctors can do their job. The strength coach can do their job. And everybody says, ‘OK, we’re right there.’ But the kid has to feel like, ‘yeah, I’m right there.’”