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American Athletic Conference

American Stories – The New Normal

Jessica Hill - Associated Press

Geno Auriemma is arguably the best women’s basketball coach in the history of the sport. He has a 1,027-134 record in 31 years and has coached UConn to 11 NCAA tournament championships.

He has coached the U.S. national team to two gold medals in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He been to the Final Four 11 years in a row, 19 times all told, and has never lost a game in the American Athletic Conference in five years.

“It’s nuts, right? It’s not normal,” Auriemma said at the league’s annual preseason media day.

“Our seniors have never lost a regular season game, conference or nonconference,” Auriemma said. “They live in a world that, by any stretch of the imagination, is the most ridiculous thing. If you wrote a book for middle school kids – there’s a team and they never lose – the kids would go, ‘This is fiction. This isn’t real. It’s not normal.’

“I want to get them back to normal.”

This season, for one of the few times in his career, Auriemma’s team will not be the overwhelming national favorite headed into the season. That honor goes to Notre Dame, the 2018 NCAA champion which was a unanimous favorite to repeat in the Associated Press preseason poll.

In the new normal, schools like Notre Dame, Mississippi State, Louisville, Oregon, South Carolina and Baylor all stand in the way.

Shed no tears for UConn, however. The Huskies were picked No. 2 in the preseason poll, so it’s not like Auriemma’s squad is expected to quietly fade away.

Auriemma has a good team capable of returning to the Final Four, but he does not have an invincible one – at least not yet. Unlike the past, when he had players like future Hall of Famers Sue Bird, Diana Tarausi, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart, there are no guarantees that the Huskies will hang another banner at Gampel Pavilion after this season.

“If you said to me you’re going to coach at Connecticut 10 more years and you’re going to go to 10 more Final Fours, and that would be 21 in a row, but you are only going to win one national championship, if you are lucky – I’ll take that,” Auriemma said. “I’ll take that in a heartbeat. Because it’s hard to get to the Final Four. And this year it will be hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the goal.

“We won’t be preseason No. 1, people won’t be looking at us maybe the same. But I would think every year that Connecticut should have realistic – sometimes more realistic than others – chances to get to the Final Four.”

UConn won four consecutive national championships with Stewart, who was the most decorated college basketball player in history from 2013 through 2016. Stewart has since emerged as the most complete player in the world at age 24, having been selected Most Outstanding Player in the WNBA regular season and playoffs when she led the Seattle Storm to the championship and was selected as the Most Outstanding Player of the 2018 Women’s World Championships this fall in the Canary Islands when the U.S. won a gold medal.

Auriemma has a history of producing an assembly line of great players. He has three potential All Americans – senior Katie Lou Samuelson, senior Napheesa Collier, who both earned the honor last year; and junior point guard Crystal Dangerfield, one of the best players at her position.

But the Huskies must replace three players — forward Gabby Williams, guard Kia Nurse and center Azura Stevens, who were all top 10 picks in the WNBA draft and key members of a 38-1 team that lost in overtime for a second consecutive year in the national semifinals.

“This year, for the first time maybe in like in the last 10 years, we just have nowhere to go after we identify our starting five,” said Auriemma. “After that, we don’t have any player who has played significant minutes at all at Connecticut. We always have had eight. This year for first time, we are going to be really challenged to find those players.”

The Huskies also will play their most challenging schedule since 2000 when the UConn went 36-1 and won the national championship, playing 12 of the teams in the Sweet 16. This year, they will play nonconference road games against Louisville, Notre Dame, Baylor, Oklahoma and California and home games against Ohio State, South Carolina, DePaul and Vanderbilt.

In The American, the Huskies can expect a challenge from USF, which has advanced to the final of the conference championship in four straight years, only to fall to the Huskies. But the Bulls have a veteran-laden team that returns three starters – including dynamic scorer Kitija Laksa – from a team that set a school record with 26 wins last year.

Other teams could pose a threat as well. Houston brings back all five starters from a team that won 20 games – an eight-win improvement from the previous year. UCF tied its program record with 22 wins last season and returns three starters from its defensive-minded squad. While UConn was understandably the unanimous favorite in The American, could this be the year that another team catches the Huskies on an uncharacteristically off night?

“This year is the biggest challenge we’ve had since the year after Diana (Taurasi) graduated,” said Auriemma. “We didn’t inherit this. We created this. It’s not like somebody’s imposing it.

“Our record since 2013-14 is 188-3 and all three of those losses were in overtime. That’s Fantasyland. It’s just not normal. It will be interesting to see how everybody responds when it becomes a little more normal, as it should.”

UConn’s ultimate destiny could rest on how quickly Auriemma develops his elite younger players. Sophomore wing Megan Walker, who averaged 5.8 points as a freshman, was the national high school Player of the Year in 2017 and Auriemma has signed two McDonald’s All Americas – 5-11 guard Christyn Williams from Little Rock, the consensus No. 1 player in the class of 2018; and 6-4 Olivia Nelson-Ododa, the no. 5 player who is a dynamic athlete and shot blocker.

Given Auriemma’s track record of success, UConn always has a chance.



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