UNCASVILLE — The creation of the American Athletic Conference meant different challenges for each coach leading teams into the new world.
For Geno Auriemma, the task of being flag-bearer for what appeared to be an odd assembly with few national powers might have seemed more burdensome. He never looked at it that way.
"Some of the schools in this league have more resources to get really good than some teams in other conferences do," Auriemma said again Friday.
As it turned out, dealing with it wasn't difficult at all. The No. 1 Huskies breezed through the regular season unbeaten (31-0), winning each of their 18 conference games by at least 17 points.
And sophomore Breanna Stewart, the irrepressible sophomore forward, was in front of the pack.
On Friday, the AAC honored both. Auriemma was named coach of the year and Stewart player of the year at an afternoon press conference at Mohegan Sun Arena that kicked off the conference's first postseason tournament.
Rutgers guard Tyler Scaife is the freshman of the year. Louisville senior Antonita Slaughter, who recovered from a blood clot in her lung, is the scholar-athlete.
Stewart was the AAC's preseason pick to win the honor. She is the 12th UConn player to win conference player of the year and is a leading candidate for national player of the year.
"[Stewart] is certainly not the same kind of person Diana [Taurasi] or Maya [Moore] may have been as a sophomore, either in personality or how they play the game," Auriemma said. "She is more likely Kerry Bascom; the same small-town, throwback [sensibility].
"It's almost like she's still a little kid wondering what all the fuss is. I'm just playing basketball and of course I am going to make that shot … why wouldn't I? Why is that a big deal?
"And she celebrates all the little things, almost like she was 12 years old and she got a ribbon for something she did at the school fair for arts and crafts. That's how she treats basketball."
She led UConn in scoring (19.5), blocked shots (86) and made 39 three-pointers. She also was a four-time AAC player of the week, has scored in double figures in 29 of UConn's 31 games, has scored at least 20 points in 16 games this season and is averaging 20.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in the past seven. She scored a career-high 37 at Temple on Jan. 28.
She also became the 39th player in program history to score 1,000 points.
"This [award] proves to me that my consistency and hard work has paid off," Stewart said. "And there's still a lot more to come.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself. But if that's where it comes from, I consider it to be more of an expectation to perform well every game. You get used to it."
For Auriemma, who will coach the United States in the 2014 World Championship later this season, it is his 10th selection as coach of the year. He won it nine times in the Big East.
He coached his 1,000th game at UConn on Feb. 22 at Houston and has his team on a 37-game winning streak, the third-longest in program history.
And while the conference games weren't that challenging, he was able to juggle his team through a series of injuries and illnesses that cost him junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis for 12 games and necessitated season-ending knee surgery for sophomore Morgan Tuck after she played in only eight games.
"There was a constant reminder that we don't have a lot of margin for error," Auriemma said. "You are always coaching with your fingers crossed that someone doesn't twist an ankle [Brianna Banks] or come down with mononucleosis [Mosqueda-Lewis]. We had that hanging over our heads since November. It's way better now, but we're a little more conscious of what we needed to do at practice to make sure we are ready to go."
Auriemma came into the season knowing Louisville and Rutgers would be there for just one season. It would be his program — the defending national champion, the winner of eight titles since 1995 — that would be depended on to generate the national attention the AAC needs to gain traction.
And to do that, Auriemma would again need to rely on his core of All-Americans, four of whom – Stewart, Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley and Moriah Jefferson – made the AAC's first team Thursday.
"Then again, our talent speaks for itself," Auriemma said.Copyright © 2015, CT Now