It really is fascinating how well UConn’s women play basketball. Not just this year’s spectacular 39-0 national-championship team. But every UConn team. Even the ones that didn’t win a national championship.
I’ve heard a lot about UConn’s practices, and I’ve seen a few, so I recognize a lot of the success comes from the high level of every practice. All the UConn players will tell you that coach Geno Auriemma sometimes puts them in situations where they can not win – such as going 5 on 8 – as a way to learn to deal with adversity and become problem-solvers even against the odds.
However, if such success were as simple as putting your players in impossible situations, then everybody would just try to replicate that. But, of course, it’s not just that. It’s an atmosphere that Auriemma and his staff have created at UConn that makes players believe, as the famous line from “Apollo 13” goes, “Failure is not an option.”
Meaning no matter how difficult something is, you keep battling. And everybody else does, too. You can’t ever look around at a UConn practice and see a way out if you’re feeling feint of heart. There are no trap doors out of which to escape.
I used the line from Apollo 13, but actually I also think of a very different movie to make this point: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Don’t worry, I’m not getting into anything too gross or even really scary here. It’s just this: In horror movies, you have designated victims and designated survivors, and the difference is often that the survivors simply refuse to die.
In “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” – and when I reference horror movies in this blog, which I will do far too often, I am ALWAYS referring to the original, not any crappy remake _ our designated survivor is Sally, who by any reasonable expectation should not be able to survive. Everyone else in her unfortunate traveling party succumbs with distressing ease to this crazy cannibal clan. And then there’s poor Sally, all by herself surrounded by psychopaths, no help in sight, in what any UConn player would recognize as akin to a standard Auriemma practice drill: An impossible situation where you can NOT win.
But what happens? Somehow, Sally DOES win. Well, she lives. She’s more than a little off her rocker by that point, but she’s alive, and that’s what matters.
OK, that analogy might not work for everybody (it may work only for me, in fact) and I’m certainly not suggesting that UConn has any psychopaths running around with chainsaws at practice (at least not very often) … but the point is that you learn how to survive in practice at UConn. You even learn to like it, although not usually when you are a freshman.
Obviously, designated survivors in horror movies have to rely on the script allowing them have the gumption to survive. At a top program like Connecticut, you “survive” because you were hand-picked as having the qualities to be able to do that, and then you are given the coaching and support system to strengthen those qualities.
I believe UConn practices harder and with more purpose and focus than most other programs (not all, but most). It’s not like those programs don’t have very strenuous practices. They do. It’s just that UConn can push harder and get more because the standard is always so high and never goes down.
It’s instructive to look at UConn from 1995, when the Huskies won their first national championship, to now and note how each season went.
1996: After star Rebecca Lobo graduated, fell in overtime in the national semifinals to eventual champion Tennessee.
1997: After losing Shea Ralph to injury, fell in Elite Eight to eventual champion Tennessee.
1998: After losing Nykesha Sales to injury (and putting up with an absolutely asinine attack by some national media in regard to Sales’ allowed basket against Villanova), fell to sentimental favorite N.C. State in the Elite Eight.
1999: After losing Sue Bird to injury, fell in the Sweet 16 to an Iowa State team that made an absurd five 3-pointers in a row in a crucial stretch of the second half.
2000: Won national championship.
2001: After losing Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph to injury, fell in the national semifinals to Notre Dame.
2002: Won national championship at 39-0.
2003: Graduated four starters and still won national championship.
2004: Won national championship.
2005: After star Diana Taurasi graduated, fell in Sweet 16 to Stanford.
2006: Fell in the Elite Eight to the only one of Gail Goestenkors’ Duke teams that truly should have won the national championship.
2007: Fell in the Elite Eight to an LSU team that made its fourth consecutive Final Four.
2008: After losing Kalana Greene and Mel Thomas to injuries, fell to Stanford in the national semifinals.
2009: Despite losing Caroline Doty to injury, won national championship at 39-0.
Even in the most “down” of those years – 1999 and 2005 – the way the Huskies played stood out. This goes back to my opening comment about being fascinated with their quality of play being so high. I’ve described it in the past as crisp and purposeful and fast-paced and well-executed. And it is all that.
But you could also say, of UConn’s offense: The ball just goes in … a lot.
I was talking to associate head coach Chris Dailey about this the day before the semifinals. I wondered, “What do you guys do that’s different? You make so many shots inside, you finish so well … or get the rebound and then finish.”
And she laughed and said that people who weren’t around the program every day always said that, but that all that she and Auriemma and the other UConn coaches tended to see were the misses. The mistakes. The things not done as well as they could be.
But she had heard it enough from people to know there was something we outsiders really did see about UConn’s efficiency that stood out to us. She said that the Huskies coaches did talk about it. One of the things they have concluded is that some players just have a natural “finishing touch” … which is about physical skill and coordination and focus and maybe something else that nobody really has a word for.
Those who have it thrive even more in an atmosphere like at UConn. And those who don’t have the finishing touch at least learn to develop it to some degree.
Tina Charles was a player who, in her first two seasons, often didn’t finish shots the way Auriemma expects. You’ve no doubt by now heard about how hard he’s pushed her to be able to that. And she has. She was machine-like in the national-championship game.
I know a good number of women’s hoops fans are tired of UConn. (And, for that matter, Tennessee, which – this season’s struggles notwithstanding – has the same kind of intensely focused practices and has won even more NCAA titles (eight to six).
But even if you are weary of tales of the Huskies’ success, just take away this: It’s good for the sport that UConn basketball is so well-played, every single year.