In a struggling economy, even the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team stayed home for the holidays.
With the University of Connecticut not hosting NCAA tournament games this season and head coach Geno Auriemma serving as president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, the Huskies stayed home for Thanksgiving weekend and hosted the WBCA Classic.
Although Hofstra University, University of Richmond, Clemson University accepted invitations to spend the staycation with UConn, they might not have had pleasant experiences on the court: the Huskies won each of their games by at least 39 points. However, despite the wide margin of victory, the players an coaches weren’t content with the way they played in two of the games.
So how did these three games benefit UConn?
It was a chance to continue to build a new team identity.
Since the beginning of the season, the players have talked about finding that new team identity.
Last season, the team identity was built around point guard Renee Montgomery to such an extent that despite returning every other major contributor their identity is still developing. Auriemma willingly channeled all the aspirations of the team into simply getting Renee Montgomery a championship. "Win one for Renee" wasn't quite "We have Diana and you don't," however last season’s team didn't need that kind of protection from its captain and Montgomery wasn't built to carry the same load in the same way as Taurasi.
The sequel to "We have Diana and you don't" was "We're UConn and you're not" the following season. In 2009, the team is still working to define the legacy of the next era. At least for UConn it's far too early in the season for identity defining rally cries, but last week featured the continuation of several early season trends that will likely help define this season's team.
A Shift to Defense
Playing hard for forty minutes continues to define this team.
When asked how playing UConn helped their team all three opposing coaches talked about their players experiencing what it's like to play against team with that intensity level.
"Our players say they want to play as hard as UConn and I say that's a great verbal statement, but now we need to execute it better on the court," said Hofstra Head Coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey. It's not as simple as just hustling -- getting an entire team to perform that way requires training and practice as well as commitment from the players.
Where UConn's early season intensity level has shown up the most is on defense, and that's where the week began. The players were welcomed back from three days off to visit family with intense practices dedicated to defense as well as maintaining focus and overcoming adversity. Increasing the challenge was the addition of Sue Bird, who spent two days practicing with the team early in the week. "We were working on defense so (Bird) was really happy because she got to be on offense for two days," said UConn Associate head coach Chris Dailey.
During the three games the team often left their coaches with little to criticize on that end of the floor. The high point was the game of the weekend against Richmond.
Richmond won its other two games in the tournament, but unfortunately faced UConn players that were disappointed in their play 24 hours earlier. UConn ran out to a 14-0 lead and led 51-14 at the half. They set a team record by making ten three point field goals in the first half, but it was the defense that impressed the team's coaches.
"I don't know that defensively we could play any better than that,” said Auriemma following the game. “I don't think they were able to generate any kind of offense at all in that first half. And it seemed like we had everything guarded the way we want to guard it, we were exactly where we needed to be."
While UConn's overall play was uneven at times during the other two games there wasn't much to criticize on defense. It was strong enough to get Dailey to upgrade her assessment mid-sentence at halftime of the final game against Clemson: "Our defense has been good, great exactly."
The word "great" isn't exactly tossed around lightly by the UConn coaches to describe a current opponent.
Their early season defensive performance is a key piece of the team's new identity. Last season's team did not begin the season as a really strong defensive team. The team was so historically good on offense that there wasn't much pressure to play superlative defense early in the season. The "couldn't guard a chair" line was applied to several players, and after a mid-season game against LSU, Auriemma felt the need to rededicate the team to defense with a long and intense practice. The team did improve as the season progressed and they could be absolutely suffocating at times on defense, but it never reached the historic greatness that UConn teams are measured against.
In contrast, the 2009 team has been strong defensively from the start. A bigger backcourt has significantly helped the defensive rebounding. While last year's team didn't force many turnovers considering how athletic they were, this year's team has been much more aggressively playing the passing lanes and forcing turnovers. The team's performance has even surprised Auriemma, but perhaps not the fans who predicted a stronger defensive identity from this team.
Along with the shift to a greater defensive identity has been the previously discussed dedication by the players to getting the ball into Tina Charles.
Charles has continued to be aggressive reinforcing the idea that she's capable of sustaining this type of play. Against Clemson, Charles scored twenty points in the opening half, but it's also been a team effort.
Despite not making a single jump shot, UConn scored 54 points in the first half against Clemson with 42 points in the paint and 12 made free throws. UConn would score 62 of its 87 points in the game in the paint with 17 of the remaining 25 points coming at the line.
The Clemson game may be the strongest example of the team scoring in the lane, but all season there has been a collective commitment to getting the ball into the paint even against defenses that are packing the paint to try and stop Charles.
Evolving Perimeter Play
That commitment to getting the ball to players in the paint hasn't always led to the surest decision making so far this season.
While the defense may be better than it was a year ago, the turnovers have also been considerably increased. The turnover problem may have been expected from a team playing without Montgomery or really any “true” point guard at all, but the way the turnovers are happening might be cause for concern.
Defensive pressure on UConn's guards hasn't caused many turnovers. Instead there have been an unusually large number of unforced miscues. Dribbling the ball off a foot or not picking the ball up cleanly have been a bit too common. But more importantly, the commitment to getting the ball inside has led to far too many errant passes into the lane.
Many UConn players are capable of making NFL passes -- they're not simply passing to the open player, but are trying to thread passes through a window in the defense to where their teammate will be. When both the quarterback and the receiver read the defense correctly the result is some of the most beautiful plays in basketball. Although there have been plenty of those this season, there have also been too many forced passes into the defense when the initial openings into the lane aren't there. Extending the football analogy, the patience to go through the progressions and take the “check-down” pass to open perimeter player hasn't been there consistently in the early going.
In the past the focus has been on the point guard position, but the turnover problem extends beyond lead ball handlers alone -- other players are increasing their ball handling roles and looking to make more plays with the ball as well.
For example, Maya Moore has been much more aggressive with the ball. Her first two years she would look to get the ball to a guard if she got a defensive rebound or forced a turnover that didn't lead directly to a breakaway layup. This year she's keeping the ball and pushing it up the court herself fairly often. She's also looking to make more plays in the halfcourt, and has been guilty of both of the previously discussed types of turnovers that have plagued UConn a bit in the early going.
Just about every player is more involved as a ball handler than they were a year ago, and there will be growing pains associated with that. Even with the turnovers this is still a team averaging 90 points per game and as good as any on offense in the country, but it is something that will evolve throughout the season as players become more comfortable with their expanded roles and the new team identity becomes more clearly forged.
A Look Ahead
The season slows down with only one game this Thursday against Vermont. It was a game Vermont scheduled because Vermont's star Canadian players -- Courtnay Pilypaitis and May Kotsopoulos -- believed that if they couldn't play for UConn then they at least wanted to play against them. They got their wish early as Vermont played UConn in an NCAA opening round game last year. UConn won the game by 39 points, but after the game Auriemma talked about how impressed he was with Vermont. And Pilypaitis and Kotsopoulos talked about how much fun the experience for two Diana Taurasi fans from Ontario.
Vermont has had a great start to the season. They're getting votes in the polls for the first time in nearly a decade, and both teams are excited about the matchup even though it will likely be another UConn win by a large margin.
"After two quality days of rest and relaxation it was back to practicing and getting ready for our next game against the national champion UConn Huskies,” Pilypaitis writes about the upcoming game. “We are all looking forward to the game and want to compete against the best. We are taking this as a challenge to see where our team is at this point in the season. It is going to be fun to have our freshmen experience playing against UConn on their home court. The returnees know how much fun we had last year."
UConn's Auriemma also expressed excitement about playing Vermont, "When we saw them play last year, I was really impressed with them. We played them here. Now they're all seniors. I'm really looking forward to that game. That should be a lot of fun."
- The Womens Hoops Blog has been all over Courtnay Pilypaitis for a while. As Auriemma says, she's impressive.