STORRS — During the course of his Hall of Fame career, now enriched by eight NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal, UConn's Geno Auriemma has distinguished himself by digging below the surface of the apparent.
It is there, buried under the obvious, that nutrients lie that he can use to prod and motivate.
“He will make sure to find a way to remind them about what they lost,” said Temple coach Tonya Cardoza, a former UConn assistant. “He will remind them that those are the things they need to focus on. He has always been a master at identifying the things that a team is lacking.”
This season will be Auriemma's eighth after a title. Seven times he has attempted to snip whatever overconfidence his returning team had.
How has he done? Six teams went back to the Final Four. Three won championships (2003, '04, '10). Only the 2004-05 team didn't make it back to the Final Four — once Diana Taurasi said a final goodbye in New Orleans the previous April.
So what will Auriemma do to inspire a team that returns more than 80 percent of its offense from one that was 35-4?
He will focus on what was lost.
“If you have an immature group, they won't be able to handle it,” Auriemma said. “They will get swamped by the expectations. Do we have a mature team? I don't know. I think we won't find out until the first few weeks of practice. We had Kelly Faris last season. She was very mature. She set the tone for the entire team. And some players simply are not replaceable.
“There is nothing you can do to compensate [for their loss]. And it would be unfair to ask any of our players to be like her. I know it's not going to happen. We will miss everything about her; some are tangible, some aren't. My guess is we are going to be OK.”
If the Huskies are OK, it will be because they again have an abundance of talent, led by senior All-Americans Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson.
Right behind them is a third All-American, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who led the team in scoring last season as a sophomore (17.6) and set a program record with 118 three-pointers.
And right behind her is UConn's All-American-in-the-making, sophomore Breanna Stewart, the reigning most outstanding player of the Final Four and the AAC's first preseason player of the year. Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart are also Associated Press preseason All-Americans.
“I think it tells me that there is a lot still to be done, but things are headed in the right direction,” Stewart said.
All but Dolson, who was resting injuries, played for USA Basketball over the summer and helped their teams win gold. All but Hartley, who was taking pressure off her cranky ankle, spent a weekend in Las Vegas with Auriemma working out with the national team.
UConn welcomes just one freshman, guard Saniya Chong, a prolific high school scorer from Ossining, N.Y., who excels in transition.
Junior Brianna Banks, 5 feet 9, returns from a torn ACL in her right knee. She has participated in preseason conditioning drills and individual workouts.
“I'm feeling good,'' Banks said. “I'm just taking it slow now and trying to get it together.''
Banks underwent surgery March 14 after she was injured at St. John's on Jan. 12.
The Huskies will play 18 regular season games in a conference that hardly scares anyone, even though Louisville — which UConn defeated in last season's national title game — will play them twice.
“Going undefeated would be something we are working toward,” Stewart said. “You don't play to lose. You play to win.”
UConn must again distinguish itself and build its RPI against a difficult nonconference schedule that includes Maryland, Penn State, Stanford, Duke, California, Ohio State and Baylor.
But after playing Notre Dame 12 times in the past three seasons, including the past three Big East tournament championship games and NCAA semifinals, the Huskies aren't scheduled to face the Irish, who are now in the ACC.
Dolson, Hartley, Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart have been named to the Wooden Award preseason top 30, and UConn is No. 1 in all the major preseason polls that precede the season opener Saturday against Hartford.
As for Auriemma, he is after a ninth national championship that would allow him to surpass Pat Summitt and move within one of John Wooden for the most (10) in Division I basketball.