'We don’t intend to stop': Finally healthy, UConn sets focus on greatness — again

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma answers a question during the Big East NCAA college basketball media day, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma answers a question during the Big East NCAA college basketball media day, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NEW YORK — Geno Auriemma doesn’t want his players to forget how they felt on March 25.

He doesn’t want them to move on or look ahead without remembering the pain they all experienced walking off the floor after a 73-61 Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State.

“One of my players told me, ‘Coach, we’re taught that you put failure behind you and move on,’” Auriemma said, with a faint tone of disbelief. “You know what you get really good at [doing that]? Failing and putting [expletive] behind you. You know what you have to get really good at? Failing, holding onto that until you get rid of it.

“The best teams I’ve ever had, the first practice the next year, it was still there and they were going to take it out on anybody. The stuff like that, that needs to seep inside you before you cut it out and get rid of it.”

That loss extended UConn’s longest title drought since it won its first under Auriemma in 1995. It capped off a season that watched the Huskies’ talented roster get decimated by injuries — including a torn ACL in August 2022 for star guard Paige Bueckers — that forced Auriemma to shorten his rotation and play his best players nearly 40 minutes per night.

Auriemma isn’t one for excuses, though.

“Maybe the injuries took their toll over a period of time and it caught up to us, I don’t know, but when the NCAA tournament comes around in March, anything that you haven’t fixed, that you were able to hide, you’re not hiding it anymore,” Auriemma said. “There were a lot of things that we knew we had to fix, injuries or no injuries, and maybe they got a little bit fixed, but they were just Band-Aids.”

UConn comes into this season revamped and with as much additional buzz as the most dominant women’s program in NCAA history can muster.

First and foremost, Bueckers is healthy. A preseason AP All-American and picked as the Big East’s preseason Player of the Year, Bueckers is as talented as any player in the country and one Auriemma says is better than he’s ever seen her.

FILE - Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers (5) passes the ball during the first quarter of a college basketball game against Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA women's tournament, March 26, 2022, in Bridgeport, Conn. Bueckers was named to the preseason AP All-America women’s NCAA college basketball team, revealed Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)
Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers passes the ball during the first quarter of a college basketball game against Indiana in the Sweet 16 in the 2022 NCAA women's tournament. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“She may not have been playing competitively, but she’s never been away from the game,” Auriemma said. “Unfortunately, it took that kind of injury, but she’s used it to her benefit. She’s bigger, she’s stronger, she’s quicker, she just sees things a little bit differently. The things that are going to be so evident are how different she looks. I don’t want to say people have forgotten who she is, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen her play at a real high level.”

Junior guard Azzi Fudd — who, alongside Bueckers, makes up arguably the best backcourt in the nation — is also healthy. Fudd missed more than a month last season with a knee injury, returning for the Big East and NCAA tournaments in March, albeit clearly not at the high level she showed in her freshman and early sophomore campaigns.

Much to Auriemma’s liking, Fudd hasn’t forgotten the heartbreak of last March.

"We moved on from that game in the sense that it’s a new team and a new season, but that feeling that we had in the locker room after, even during the game, sticks with us,” Fudd said. “For me, I think about that and it’s that added fuel and fire when I say, ‘Am I tired? No, I can keep going.’ Remembering what it felt like in that locker room and that feeling I never want to feel again.”

UConn's Azzi Fudd looks on during the second quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sweet 16 round of the 2023 NCAA women's tournament in Seattle. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

In addition to getting Bueckers and Fudd back in the mix, Auriemma has added an impact freshman in KK Arnold. Arnold, a 5-foot-9 guard from Wisconsin, was picked to be the Big East’s top freshman, already drawing rave reviews from Auriemma and her teammates for the energy level she’s bringing to Storrs, Connecticut, in practice alone.

“We haven’t had that kind of quickness and electricity in our backcourt,” Auriemma said. “Nika [Mühl] has it, but with KK, it’s different. When the two of them are in there, it’s double. She speeds things up, offensively and defensively. She’s not worried about what happens if she blows it up, she just plays.”

The health and incoming talent — including four other freshmen — gives Auriemma a luxury he didn’t have last season. Sure, there’s the tangible aspect of simply having enough bodies to build a true rotation, but Auriemma alluded to the psychological effect last year’s circumstances had.

“Knowing what I know from what I’ve seen so far, I think the vibe is going to be decidedly different,” Auriemma said. “You can’t underestimate the toll that it takes, having to play 40 minutes every night. Every kid says they hate to come out, but our best teams ever, the best players probably played 30 minutes, not 40. I want to see how effective we are and how much we can get done if we can get back to that.”

And despite the wave of injuries that slammed the program last year, Auriemma isn’t backing down.

“Other than not playing, preventing injuries is impossible,” Auriemma said. “Anybody who thinks that they have the secret to preventing injuries is probably selling you something out of a bottle in a cupboard wagon. We’re going harder at practice than we have at any other time over the past two or three years. Preseason is supposed to be difficult, it’s supposed to be hard and you’re supposed to be taxed, so we’re taxing them.”

UConn comes into the season ranked No. 2 in the country, behind defending national champion LSU — which added star guard and honorable mention AP All-American Hailey Van Lith this offseason. The Huskies were picked overwhelmingly to win the Big East for the fourth straight season since they returned to the conference. It would have been unanimous, but rules stipulate a coach cannot vote for their own program.

It’s the norm for a program that has 10 national titles since 2000 (11 overall) and — even in a new era of stardom and renewed excitement surrounding women’s college basketball — remains the standard-bearer.

It’s a role Auriemma relishes being in.

“Half the country that follows women’s basketball wants us to go undefeated every year,” Auriemma said. “The other half, wishes we finish last in the Big East every year. We’re in the perfect situation. We’ve been there for 25 years, we just needed more teams to be in that situation.

“With social media and the world being what it is, if you spend one or two years there, people think you’re the greatest thing that’s been invented. Do it for 25 years in a row. We’re the only ones who've ever done what we’ve done and we don’t intend to stop doing it.”