There is something that is sort of sinister about watching a Connecticut practice. It is what I am sure people feel like when they have trade secrets or whenever you sneak a peek at a Christmas present too early. You are waiting on someone to tap you on the shoulder and say you shouldn’t be there or you can’t see this.
The thing is I am sure their practices are like 90% of the other Division 1 teams in America. Everyone practices offensive sets and variations of their defense. There are corrections to imperfections and ad nauseam repetitions. That is what every program does. It just seems different.
They run the same drills and sets as a lot of teams. Heck, you can even buy a 4 DVD set of a Geno Auriemma practice on the internet. But everyone that has ever taken in a UConn practice from coaches to commentators remark on the way they practice.
Like any other gym, you walk into a UConn practice and the air is filled with the squeaking of sneakers and the bouncing of a basketball.
That is where the atmosphere changes. There is constant talking, clapping and encouragement. Even if you are not out on the floor, you are busy. Everyone has their eyes on the floor, watching the work being done. No one is exempt, from the managers to the reserve practice players.
The UConn assistants, Chris Dailey, Shea Ralph, and Marisa Moseley are the most vocal. They are constantly instructing the group and offering individual advice every moment. Each and every mistake is met with a sharp critique. Every effort that is not full out is reprimanded. Every cut is sharp, every pass is crisp and every run is full out. The consensus is you do things the right way, every time.
You will find that the coaches are not the only one holding the players accountable. They hold each other accountable. There is Caroline Doty offering advice to Tiffany Hayes on where to flash to get a pass. There is Lorin Dixon talking with Bria Hartley on the offense. There is Maya Moore, who is sitting out the last bit of practice, screaming advice to Samarie Walker about posting up hard.
Geno Auriemma has a somewhat laid back approach compared to his other coaches. The often demonstrative coach is actually reserved in practice. (Well at least the part that the media is allowed to see.) Auriemma corrects his players quietly. Every single one of his players stops and watches him intently when he speaks. His voice is so low, that his words cannot be deciphered, while sitting in the first few rows of seats. The players nod to his words and they try again, hoping to please their relentless coach.
When something is done right there is an explosion of applause. ‘Again, again,’ is said. One time is not good enough. The same scheme is run multiple times with multiple cuts and multiple results.
This is a practice, before UConn tips off on Sunday against a 3-3 Sacred Heart team (1:00 PM), not some nationally ranked team that is going to pose a risk to the 7-0 Huskies, but the focus and the intensity is still there.
When asked on Friday, what they knew about their next opponent, Sacred Heart, the players didn’t know much. It was after all 2 days before game day, but that is never Connecticut’s focus. ‘Do what you do, well and focus on that’ is the mantra.
The players know where their focus needs to lie on the 2 games before the break for Finals.
"I’m very happy, but I know I have a long way to go and I still have a lot of things that I need to work on," said freshman guard, Bria Hartley. "I have to be stronger mentally and I have to be ready for 40 minutes every night. But it’s beginning to click in my mind a bit. The beginning of the season was rough. I’m trying to improve every day and do that by doing my tasks and stepping up to the challenges."
Hartley lost her starting spot to Lorin Dixon in UConn's last outing versus South Florida due to a sub-UConn standard practice the morning of the game.
"You can't take it (not starting) in a negative way. Just know that when you get out on the floor, you have to make an impact. If you are starting or not. You have to execute the game plan and make sure the team plays well."
Someone who has had it perhaps a little rougher than Hartley, is one of freshman cohorts.
Stefanie Dolson has upped her offensive production of late. She averaged 4.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, while shooting 45.5% in the first 3 games. Dolson in the last 4 games has average 12 points and 4.0 rebounds while shooting a sizzling 71.4% from the floor.
However, Dolson knows her focus needs to be on rebounding. The freshman center said, "I was happy (offensively) but as happy as I was, I didn’t rebound like I want. I have to be stronger with the ball."
Coach Geno Auriemma agreed with Dolson’s assessment. "I think for us to be very good, we need to make sure that we are very good in the lane. At both ends of the floor. We need to be able to score in the lane, defend in the lane, offensive rebound and we have to defensive rebound. If we can take care of those four things than we have a chance to be as good as we need to be to win a National Championship."
Part of the problem Auriemma feels is toughness.
"We’re not the biggest team in the world, that’s the problem,’’ Auriemma added. "We’re not big. And we’re not as physically imposing as we’ve been all of these last 10 to 15 years." He added, "I think this team would no question challenge you at the mall to see who could get a scarf first. I don’t know if they’d want to meet you in a back alley. I think they’re more, ‘Who can get into the salon chair before the other one can.’ I’ve not seen that side of them yet, but it may come.’’
Geno Auriemma has said he will have a real good feel on his team heading into final exam week. Well we are 2 games away and Auriemma is still not even set on a starting line up.
"Sometimes this year it is going to be on a whim," Auriemma said. "I think this will work tonight. Sometimes I will look at somebody and say 'I don't know if they've got it' or 'she looks really, really ready.'"
It all depends on what he sees or doesn't see in that silly thing called, 'practice.'
Fun, Fast Swish Facts
- Maya Moore needs 8 points to tie the All-Time Scoring record that Tina Charles currently holds at 2,346 points.
- Maya Moore is currently averaging 19.0 points per game, over her career. The largest in UConn history, Kerry Bascom is 2nd at 18.1.
- Over the last 100 games, UConn is 99-1.
- This season, UConn has scored a total of 319 points in the 1st half, UConn opponents have scored a total of 320 points over both halves.
- The Huskies have won their last 241 games against unranked opponents at home.