UConn Men Gear Up For Early Start To Practice

The Hartford Courant

First Night will no longer be the eve of the first day of basketball practice at UConn.

Yes, there will still be a First Night, with all its hype and pageantry for the men's and women's teams on Oct. 18, but by then the men will already have started practicing, thanks to new NCAA legislation.

"We'll have a chance for what we call 'brain food,'" coach Kevin Ollie said. "Where we can sit down and talk about the different things we want to do. We have a couple of new principles I want to put in place early."

Under the old rules, the men could start 30 days before the first game of the season, and have 24 practices, allowing for one day off a week.

Last spring, the NCAA Board of Directors considered a plan to extend it to 40 days. But with many teams, like UConn, beginning on Friday, Nov. 8, the first day a regular season game could be scheduled, that would have placed the first practice on a Sunday. So the final version gives coaches 42 days and 30 practices. UConn men can begin as early as this Friday, but are leaning toward starting Saturday.

The new rules will provide for more days off between practices, which could help keep players healthier — although players are likely to come to the gym on their own.

"That's a difference, though," said UConn senior Shabazz Napier, who has had foot problems the past two years. "When you come in on an off day, you're just sharpening up things you think you need to sharpen up. I think there will be less wear and tear on our bodies."

Coaches seem to have mixed feelings about the new practice format, as they experiment with ways to implement it. UConn has been considering a five-days-on, two-days-off schedule. At Quinnipiac, Tom Moore will start Sunday and is thinking of practicing four days the first week, then five days, then six.

"As we get closer to the season, we'd get into more of our normal routine," Moore said. "You don't want to put the pedal to the floor too early — you'll have too many guys in your doghouse by the time the season starts."

The women's coaches have had the option of starting 40 days before the first game for a few years, but UConn's Geno Auriemma, having won eight NCAA championships, has chosen to keep to the old routine and will, again, start practicing in mid-October.

"I guess I'm optimistic," Auriemma said. "I guess I'm thinking that our season is going to end in April so why start so early? That's just the way I've always thought and I am just a creature of habit. … That's not to say we won't do some things a little earlier than we have done in the past. But in terms of the beginning of practice, that middle of October date is a magical one for us. I know other people have gotten a head start by beginning a little earlier and I can see why they would do that. But right now, for us, with the fact that we have a smaller roster, I think staying with what we've done is our best option."

The UConn men, who were 20-10 last season, dealt with a thin roster, but an NCAA sanction limiting practices turned out to be a benefit, Ollie says. They were allowed to practice five days a week, instead of six, and although the extra day off inhibited the coaches from practicing certain situational drills, the extra day off helped them survive the 30-game season as injuries mounted.

"If we had been [eligible] to play in the NCAA Tournament, we might not have had a team," guard Ryan Boatright said. "This is where the coaching comes in. Coach Ollie will have a plan that works best, he'll take care of us."

Normally, the first couple of weeks of October are times for players to play pick-up games without coaches' supervision. Now, that portion of the calendar figures to be more structured.

"I want to be the most conditioned team in America," Ollie said, "so there will be a lot of conditioning without the basketball. Guys don't like to hear that, but it's just getting back to basics and fundamentals so we can build on the great things we did last year."

Boatright thinks the new, extended practice schedule would be more beneficial for a younger team, where players could use the time to get to know each other. UConn has more juniors and seniors this year than most high-majors usually do, but bonding is always a work in progress.

"I think it will help," Napier said, "usually at the first practices, you're figuring things out, feeling each other out. You're not getting up and down the floor. Now, when we get to First Night we'll be able to get it going. We'll be able to get the chemistry right."

UConn coaches are in intensive meetings early this week, with the "Husky Run" set for Wednesday. Determining the most effective way to schedule the 42 days between Sept. 27 and the first game, against Maryland at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Nov. 8, will be a key item on the agenda.

"We are deeper with our guys than last year," Ollie said. "But it still allows us to get off our feet. We call it a down [time] or a recovery [time]. They'll be able to replenish their souls, their minds and their hearts, and we'll be making sure they're fresh. We want them, on Nov. 8, to be running on all cylinders. That's what we're looking at."

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