His is one of the most recognizable names and faces in women's basketball. The architect of one of the most successful college programs in any sport, Geno Auriemma has, beginning today, perhaps more pressure on him than he has had before. Challenges, such as leading the United States Senior National Team back to the World Championship Australia claimed four years ago, are not something that Auriemma backs down from.
As his pool of players gathered in Hartford to begin the final selection process that ended with the selection of the 12 women that will begin play vs. Greece today, I was able to talk to Geno one on one for a few minutes.
The biggest obstacle facing so many countries, but in particular the United States in assembling their World Championship teams was the lack of preparation time. The players spend most of the winter and spring in Europe, making most of their income, and then spend the summer playing in the WNBA, for their love of the game and playing before the home crowds in the States. The problem became even worse when injuries eliminated Candace Parker, slowed Sylvia Fowles, and the WNBA finals took Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Angel McCoughtry from training time. I asked Geno about how difficult this selection process was.
Playing in Europe, you're never quite sure the reaction you're going to receive. Will the United States be fan favorites, or "the enemy"? They had little time together, and that time was mostly all on American soil. Would this be a problem for the championship efforts?
While there are several outstanding teams in the tournament, including Spain and Brazil, the most anticipated matchup is of course the United States vs the Australian national team, the Opals. Led by WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor, the Opals boast an extremely strong team. While not as talented overall as the United States team, the teamwork and continuity the Opals possess makes them a very dangerous team, that has defeated the United States twice in exhibitions now. In addition to the WNBA players, two younger players, outside shooter Jenna O'Hea and 6'8" teenage center Liz Cambage have been making a huge impact. I asked Geno in particular to evaluate Cambage.
Every player and coach is sacrificing to be a part of the Team USA efforts to regain the FIBA World Championship. The players are tired, banged up, and they have been playing non-stop for a long time. The coaches are no exception. They each have other responsibilities and jobs, not just being a part of this program. UConn is the defending national champion, and is riding a 78 game winning streak. They return USA team member Maya Moore, but they graduated integral parts of that team in Tina Charles and Kalana Greene and starting guard Caroline Doty has a knee injury that will sideline her. That means this year's Huskies will be young, and needs to come together quickly. I asked Geno about having to leave his program for an extended time.
Being selected to coach the USA Senior National team is an honor that belongs only to the elite in the coaching field. Van Chancellor, Ann Donovan, Tara VanDerveer...the list goes on and on. Geno Auriemma is an elite coach, and his NCAA championships prove it. Yet he is going after a prize that is even more important, and the stakes are high. Win, and the United States had the most talent, and of course they won. Lose, and he's known as the coach that couldn't succeed with all that talent. The fact six members of the team, half of it, all played for him in college has some people already accusing the selection committee of bowing to his wishes, and overlooking the fact that everyone of them has been an All-American or an All-Star. It's a very difficult situation, and one that takes a lot of guts. It's also a situation that I'm sure Geno Auriemma loves being in, and will take anytime.