UConn’s work last week took place in a tiny gym on the Caribbean shore, three victories at the Paradise Jam to move into the next phase of the latest season of ridiculous, though standard, expectations.
Next week’s work will begin Sunday in a packed Joyce Center at the heart of the Notre Dame campus with the top-ranked Fighting Irish hosting the No. 2 Huskies, the latest installment in a rivalry that is the best thing going in women’s college basketball.
In between, UConn dusted No. 16 DePaul 99-63 Wednesday night at the XL Center in its first game against a ranked team, the same day the Huskies officially pulled the curtain on their 2019 recruiting efforts — or at least had the carpet pulled from under their feet.
What a 10-day block this is becoming. Down go the Huskies! They were challenged by St. John’s in St. Thomas. They didn’t land any top recruiting targets for the first time in … forever. They’re underdogs Sunday against an Irish team that bounced them from the Final Four. They’re a top-heavy team lacking depth.
“What can I say? It’s over,” said coach Geno Auriemma, who has 1,033 victories and 11 national championships in 33-plus years of coaching wave after wave of All-Americans and All-WNBA players.
Yup, it’s all over, everything we have come to expect as much as appreciate over the past quarter century.
Sarcasm can be difficult to detect in print. It is not from Auriemma, who smiled often in a Wednesday night press conference as he lent perspective to a panic-filled discussion of the Huskies’ demise, given that they whiffed on top high school players such as Aliyah Boston and Haley Jones, the consensus No. 1 player in the Class of 2019 who announced hours earlier that she would attend Stanford.
“I remember reading that in 2005 after Diana [Taurasi] graduated,” Auriemma said. “Every year, 2005, 2006 and 2007, I read that the program is done, it’s over. It was. It was over for three years. I think we averaged 29-30 wins. But we fell on hard times.”
“We went through a deep depression. I mean, we should have won 200 [games] in a row. We only won 111. So you go through some cycles, and you’re supposed to. We’re the only one that has been immune to any cycles. Every single team in America in the last 25 years has gone through some cycle where they have not been good — except us. How do you explain that? And the more you do that, the more it’s out there that it’s supposed to last forever. They fact that we didn’t get [Jones] tells you how hard it is to do that every year. That fact that we haven’t won a national championship in two years, and people are shocked, tells you how hard it is that [so few have] been able to win two in a row. We’ve won two in a row how many times? A bunch.”
A few recruiting losses or the slightest reason for concern about construction of the roster — nothing seismic, just a return to everyone else’s basketball normalcy – feels like the makings of an earthquake ready to rock Gampel Pavilion, all those championship banners in tatters.
The Huskies have arguably the best trio of players in America in Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and Crystal Dangerfield. They have lost one regular-season game in the past five years and have been to 11 consecutive Final Fours. Wednesday’s starting lineup featured three consensus No. 1 national recruits in Samuelson (2015), Megan Walker (2017) and Christyn Williams (2018).
Still, UConn’s only recruit for next season is Ossining, N.Y., guard Aubrey Griffin, the No. 33-ranked high school senior according to ESPN. She’s a nice piece but there’s still an incomplete puzzle with the graduation of Samuelson and Collier, and a shaky group of reserves returning for 2019-20. Look for Auriemma to fill another scholarship or two via transfers or European players.
Is the situation ideal? Not by UConn standards, by what the Huskies themselves created. There’s a little ripple, doubt in a team set back by Azura Steven’s departure, a few recruiting miscalculations in recent years and an inability to land a stud from the current class.
UConn never won every recruiting battle while building its dynasty and nowadays more programs are elevating their profile and becoming even more viable options. Maybe that’s good for the sport. Or maybe so many people either love UConn or love hating UConn that it isn’t.
Either way, the Huskies head to South Bend, where all is going swimmingly well for the Irish, national champions for the second time last season — 17 years after winning their first title. UConn, despite what the tone of current conversations might suggest, is actually operating in a place of less internal pressure than usual.
“People say how lucky I am, how fortunate I am, and they wish they had what I have – until they have it and they go, ‘I don’t know how you do this every year,’” Auriemma said.
Because winning national championships is hard.
Landing the best players is hard.
Making it look easy is exceptionally hard.
And being expected to win everything, every day, every year is unreasonable because it is impossible. UConn’s second national title came four years after its first. Its sixth came five years after its fifth. Now after winning four in a row to reach 11 the Huskies have gone two years without cutting nets.
And if Collier and Samuelson don’t bookend their careers with another championship, can Walker, Williams and others lead them to No. 12? Imagine the panic if the best player in America doesn’t come to Storrs in 2019-20.
“I don’t think anybody has gotten more No. 1 players than we have,” Auriemma said. “We’re used to getting really good players. The trick is you’ve got to get more than one good player. You’ve got to get a couple every year. For a while there, that’s what we were doing. But how long can you keep doing that? I guess you can keep doing it forever. It seems like we’ve done it forever.”
The last time UConn didn’t sign a top-10 national recruit was the one-player class of 2013. That player was Saniya Chong, also from Ossining, who won three national championships at UConn.
“When it doesn’t happen, obviously they’re not good anymore, they can’t recruit,” Auriemma said. “You just go through some cycles where the kids you want, you know it’s a long shot. So why don’t you take some other kids? I don’t want them. … Other kids, for whatever reason, you just don’t get them. There’s a lot of other schools out there every year that would go, ‘How come Connecticut gets them all the time?’ Sometimes you don’t. This is one of those years where we didn’t. But that doesn’t mean next year we won’t.”
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