From Brian McCormick, contributing to Swish Appeal from Denver.
"At UConn, it is tantamount to treason if you say that you're not going to win the National Championship and something worse if you say you're not even going to make the Final Four, " said UConn Head Coach Geno Auriemma at the NCAA Final Four press conference.
Despite the program's expectations, Auriemma's expectations for this team varied throughout the season, from believing the team had a chance early in the season to the end of January and February when he was unconvinced. Auriemma said it was not until the Big East Tournament that he thought UConn had a shot at the championship.
According to the players and Auriemma, something happened around the time of the Big East Tournament. While the won-loss record would suggest another successful season, Auriemma knew better - he knew that this team was unlike previous Husky teams. Despite a fifth straight Final Four appearance, this team has been unlike the others. Auriemma used a story of his father to explain their struggles, at least compared to the program's high standards.
Auriemma retold the story of his father learning to drive at the age of 60. He quipped that he had to learn at that point because all of his friends who had driven him around had probably died, while Geno was no longer at home. He said that his father only learned how to drive to a couple places that he frequented. Geno's mother would ask his father to drive him someplace and he would refuse because he did not know how to get there. His mother would force him to take her. His father would get to an unfamiliar intersection and freeze. He would stay at the light, not sure where to go, while cars would honk and honk. Finally, he would give up and go home.
He used the story of his father to describe his young team this season. He said that when you're scared, you stand around and you freeze. He felt his players were standing around.
"The number one thing that a player has to have to be successful is confidence," Auriemma said. "This team lacked confidence. They pretended, but it was fake."
While his team kept winning throughout the season, he felt that they accepted losing in practice and did not know how they could be successful. It was unlike any of his recent teams. He said that past teams would be upset if he got an answer to a crossword puzzle quicker than they did, but this team, according to Auriemma, "took getting beat at practice way too casually. They didn't get incensed at losing at practice."
And the coach who had led a team to a record 90 wins was not used to this.
Auriemma and players Kelly Faris and Tiffany Hayes said that things changed at the Big East Tournament - losing at practice started to affect them during the last week of the season.
"After we won the Big East Tournament, they don't act that way anymore," Auriemma said, referring to their complacency with practice defeats.
When asked what changed in the Big East Tournament when UConn defeated Notre Dame after three straight defeats, Tiffany Hayes said, "I think we just wanted it more. We were tired of losing to the same team over and over."
During the week between the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, Auriemma said, "We went to practice and I made them force the issue. For five days everything we did was about building confidence in ourselves and each other so we could trust ourselves."
Faris added, "It took a while to grasp that we don't have a superstar, but it's all coming together at the right time. Now, it works to our advantage" not to have one player taking the big shots, like a Maya Moore in the past.
Tiffany Hayes added that "we're all superstars. Any of us can score 20 on a given night if need be," and that makes them a more difficult match-up. Now, they are hustling more and there is more togetherness, according to Hayes.
As for tomorrow's match-up and the familiarity with Notre Dame, Faris and Hayes suggested that the hustle plays would be the difference, while Auriemma was a bit more strategic: "I hope the officials don't show up. Just let the girls play basketball for 40 minutes."
He feels the difference in tomorrow's game will be rebounding and free throws. "Notre Dame may be the best team in the country at getting to the free throw line. The key tomorrow may be making them make shots rather than giving them free throws," Auriemma said. He suggested that UConn would have to do as well at getting to the free throw line as Notre Dame, but added that Notre Dame is better at getting to the free throw line than the Huskies.
Auriemma said that the only hard part about being at the Final Four is the wait to play. He felt that they were playing so well after Tuesday, that he wished that they had played again on Thursday. Auriemma feels the Huskies are as ready to play as they ever have been, and with the success that he has had in the tournament and the Final Four, that confidence bodes well for Husky Nation on Sunday night.
Brian McCormick, author of Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development and manger of Brian McCormick Basketball (developyourbballiq.com), is an experienced coach and development expert whose basketball insights about everything from youth development to point guard play are valuable for any thoughtful basketball fan. He has previously contributed to Swish Appeal with his thoughts on why developing coaching expertise at mid-majors is good for women's college basketball.
For more on the 2012 NCAA women's basketball tournament, check out our "NCAA Tournament 2012" section.