This is a good time of year for UConn coach Geno Auriemma to poke and prod and shake things up a little, all part of an effort to ensure that every aspect of his basketball team continues to improve, that the Huskies become the best possible version of themselves by March.
That means any imperfections occupy a greater space in his mind than anything worth celebrating at this point, such as a perfect record. Top-ranked UConn (14-0, 4-0 AAC) can't be in a better place on paper. They can be better on the court, though.
So forward Azura Stevens, an offensive force, is called out for her defensive shortcomings. Freshmen reserves aren't easily forgiven for poor practices. Sloppy efforts — even in a 36-point victory, as was the case Tuesday against UCF — aren’t ignored.
After practice Thursday at the Werth Family Champions Center, Auriemma discussed the notion of being difficult to play for.
"I'm the easiest guy in the country to play for," he said. "My expectations are pretty simple. I don't have a lot of rules — play hard. And do what I tell you. It's not that complicated."
The situation is sometimes complicated, though. Auriemma understands that.
"Maybe it's just the function of this program because there are no easy passes here, no get-out-of-jail cards," he said. "You come here, you're competing against really good players and you compete every minute of every day, every drill, everything we do. And then you get rewarded."
And pushed. Auriemma said any player who claims not to be afraid to fail is lying. He doesn't expect his players to be pulse-less robots. He does, however, expect them to embrace the pressure, be willing to fail and grow from the experience. Because it gets easier every step of the way.
“When kids start taking chances, that's when I know they're getting comfortable," Auriemma said. "I like when kids decide 'I got this,' and they're not worried about ‘what's Coach Auriemma going to say if I do this?' They don't care because they know they've earned it. That's how I can tell. Just like when you can tell when it's time for one of your assistants to be a head coach, when they start telling you, 'Shut up. You don't know what you're talking about.' Once [players] start taking chances, once [they] say, ‘Watch this,' as a coach you go, 'Hmm, I think we've got something going here.'"
The biggest battle UConn faces right now has to do with the hope for one of the underclassmen bench players to emerge as a reliable ball-handler. The freshmen, Auriemma has said, are incapable of putting together three solid practices in a row, and none will play consistently until they practice consistently.
“At the beginning of the season, we all had an opportunity to prove ourselves, but I know with me, it was just nerves coming in and I didn't have the confidence I should have," said freshman guard Mikayla Coombs, who averages 4.9 minutes. “That was one of my biggest problems. I've always been a perfectionist and coming in here, the first mistake I made, I would just kill myself over it. I would take myself out of plays. But he'd rather you make a mistake playing aggressively than making a mistake playing timidly."
Reserves practiced poorly Monday and played sparingly Tuesday — but played pretty well in the closing minutes of that game. Thursday's practice was good. The team travels to Houston Friday after practice in Storrs, plays at Houston Saturday and plays at No. 7 Texas Monday.
"It's almost like the best thing that can happen to a freshman is to never have a good practice," Auriemma said. "Then you know this kid doesn't have it, every day it's something, chalk them off for the season and maybe they'll be better next year. The next best thing, obviously, is they're really good and every once in a while they have a bad day. ... OK, I can live with that. The worst thing is to have a really good day that you go, 'Hmm,' and then they follow it up with another good day and you go, 'Whoa,' and then [they] play well in a game. 'Hey, I think we've turned a corner — and then [they] turn back to, not square one, back to where you have to work really hard just to get back to square one. You just shake your head, 'What are we doing here?'"
UConn is through the feeling-out phase of November and December, well into conference play, the next segment of the march toward a 12th title, a phase that has to be one of self-discovery.
“It's a new team every year so he has a lot of patience for mistakes early on,” junior forward Napheesa Collier said. “As the season goes on, we're supposed to be in the flow of things and know what to do. So it's different. This is the time when we're supposed to be fine-tuning what we know instead of learning what we're doing as a team.”
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