Geno Auriemma talks FINAL FOUR
April 3, 2014INDIANA SPORTS PAGE
RICK NIXON: Good afternoon, and welcome to today's women's Final Four head coaches media teleconference. Over the next several minutes you'll have a the opportunity to visit with the head coach of the UConn Huskies, Geno Auriemma. UConn will be playing in its record seventh straight Women's Final Four in 2014 and will be playing for a record ninth national championship in the next week or so. I will ask Coach Auriemma to provide an opening statement.
GENO AURIEMMA: Thank you, Rick. I think I speak, I'm sure, for all the other coaches that it's a great opportunity, one that you never take lightly, to play in the Final Four. For our team it's something that you work all year long for, something that every basketball player that's playing aspires to be doing at this time of the year, and we've had a great season with a lot of great moments and some fantastic wins and an awful lot of accomplishments that we're really proud of, and we're looking forward to coming out there this weekend.
I know we already played Stanford once, and it seems like years ago that we played them, but it was November, and I watched them play last night, and they're a vastly different team than they were in November, and I hope we are, too.
Q. I wanted to ask you about the shot blocking this year. Obviously you have three players who are really good at it. Can you talk a little bit about how they became good at it? Is it something Marisa is coaching them and how they stay out of foul trouble while doing this?
GENO AURIEMMA: Well, it goes back to one of the best shot blocking teams in the history of college basketball was our 1995 team with Carol Walters and Rebecca Lobo. I think that might have been before Marisa was born. I'm not sure. She probably likes to hear that.
It's something that when you have the right kind of players, when you have the right ingredients where you've got kids that are obviously skilled enough that have great footwork and are pretty intelligent defenders and their timing is pretty good, then you can have the kind of success that we've had this year. Both Chris Dailey and Marisa really emphasize positioning way more than anything else. I think blocking shots just is a byproduct of being in the right place at the right time and making good decisions.
I've got to tell you, I think the improvement in officiating has helped, believe it or not. I think blocking a shot is not as hard as making sure the official understands it's a blocked shot and not a foul, which didn't always used to be the case in women's basketball. It used to be every time you blocked a shot, it was a foul. Every time you got an offensive rebound it was over the back.
So I think the officials have gotten better at recognizing when it's a blocked shot and when it's a foul, and I think therefore our players have?? as other players around the country, have been allowed to be better defenders and play better in the post.
Q. Coach, what do you attribute your success to, and what do you think is the key to motivating players to give maximum effort at all times? Your team seems to epitomize that and has forever it seems, but what does it take for a coach to convince his players that all it takes is 40 minutes, and how do you get them to do it?
GENO AURIEMMA: Well, yeah, it's something that we take great pride in, how hard we work every day, how hard we work in the off season, and how hard we work in the preseason, how we maintain that during the season. We used to do that in 1985 and '86, '87, and we weren't any good. We didn't make the NCAA Tournament. The last 20?some years we've worked just as hard, we do the same thing, we work our butt off, we have high expectations for our players, but the players are really, really, really good. I'd like to think that we get some of the best players in America to come to Connecticut, and when they get here, I'd like to think that we have them work as hard, if not harder, than any other team in the country year in and year out.
We could do the same exact thing and not have the players that we have and we wouldn't have the success that we have. It's a combination of things, obviously, but I think the expectation level here is you go to the Final Four and you play for a national championship, and we're pretty proud of it, that since 1988?'89, every player that's been recruited at Connecticut has played in the Final Four. The kids know that. That's why they come here. When you have high expectations you tend to live up to them.
Q. Why don't we talk a little bit about the match?up with Stanford and what you said a little earlier about how they're vastly different and you are vastly different. If you could elaborate on both those points.
GENO AURIEMMA: Just based on what I saw last night watching them, they seem to be much more well?rounded. I think early in the year you're trying to fit all the pieces together. I think there was a inordinate amount of the load placed on Chiney, and maybe rightly so, because the kid can carry her whole team for a whole season if she has to. But based on what I saw yesterday, they seem to be much more well?rounded in terms of other people are doing more things. You saw players step up and make big plays. It wasn't just let's stand around and watch Chiney. That means their team has grown, their team has evolved. They're certainly experienced enough. It's not like they're playing four freshmen and Chiney, so they've got people around here that are certainly capable, and they beat a really good team last night. If anybody thinks, well, yeah, we're going to play the same Stanford team that we played in November, they're kidding.
Q. Just to follow up, in what ways do you think your team is vastly improved?
GENO AURIEMMA: Well, I think my team has changed. Every team changes. You just hope you change for the better, that you improve on the things that you thought you needed to improve on and you get better at what you were good at. Playing together all these games, all these months certainly has made us much more confident, not that we weren't confident in the November game, but in some ways we've changed and it's a little bit different. We didn't have Kaleena Lewis our second half of that game, so if everybody is healthy tonight, that'll be a little bit different for us and we'll have our starting five.
We got great contributions from Kiah Stokes and from Saniya Chong in that particular game. Kiah continues to get better and better. Saniya has not. So hopefully Sunday the five that we have as starters playing together and playing really well and we can get some contributions off the bench.
Q. It seems like it's just a monumental achievement just to come within 20 points of you this year, and only seven teams have done that, and you've got five players on the all?America team. You probably get asked this question at the end of every year, but I'm wondering how this team stacks up with the other UConn teams you've had. I'm not asking you to rate them, but I'm wondering in what particular plays is this team among your best in any particular way?
GENO AURIEMMA: I think most of the good teams that we've had have similarities. They have obviously good players at every position, which we do, really good guard play we've had since Moriah Jefferson had a great, great year, and she and Bria Hartley in the backcourt have been just really solid all year long.
We've got, I think, the best center in America, Stefanie Dolson, and certainly that's huge.
And then we have a couple players that are just dominating the game, but I don't think we win games the way we want without having more than just one way to win games. All the great teams that I've had could beat you a lot of different ways. That doesn't necessarily mean they're going to. That doesn't mean they can't lose, but that they're a hard team to just say, okay, if we do that we can beat Connecticut. Some teams that I've had, if you did one or two things, it would be difficult for us to overcome those things. This particular team, they team to have answers for a lot of things that come up on the court, and I just hope that continues.
Q. You obviously know Chiney well. You've seen her for the last four seasons and you saw her sister before that. But just on sort of first blush, what do you think you're going to have to do to slow down Stanford beyond Chiney?
GENO AURIEMMA: Well, it's kind of the same as that question that I was just asked about our team and why we're a good team. If Stanford wants to just rely on Chiney, they're a really, really, really good team, just by she doing what she does. She's so good at scoring the ball, rebounding the ball, playing defense, running the floor. She's a great emotional leader. But I don't think that's enough to win a national championship.
What I think has happened is Ruef has become, I think, a much, much better complement to Chiney. Amber has become much a more aggressive offensive player, much more consistent offensive player. Watching last night the kids on the perimeter, Bonnie Samuelson and Karlie, they look very confident. They look confident, they look they know that they're good and that they know that they can provide the other things that you need to win a championship, that it's not just let's put three guys on Chiney and let's see if Stanford can win.
So I've been impressed watching them and how much their other players have evolved, and I think that's what's going to make the match?up, for anybody to play Stanford, a difficult one.
Q. I know you didn't play Notre Dame this year, but you've seen Natalie Achonwa 12 times in the previous three years. In what ways will her loss motivate Notre Dame most, particularly when they have the challenge to trying to defend against Alyssa Thomas?
GENO AURIEMMA: Well, I doubt that Natalie Achonwa was going to be guarding Alyssa Thomas anyway. That wouldn't have been?? probably, it could have been, I don't want to speak for their coaching staff. The problem when you have a great team and you lose somebody as integral as she is to their team and you lose them late in the year, it's hard to just put somebody in and expect the same results. She was a terrific passer. She could score around the basket. She played great defense inside. She rebounded the ball. She had a little bit of an edge to her, which I think every big guy needs. What effect does not having her? Well, obviously the easy answer is she's averaging 20 points a game in the NCAA Tournament, so that's a huge effect. What effect does it have emotionally on the team? I don't know, each team's makeup is different.
In 2001 we lost two first?team all?Americans, Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph. We lost Shea in the Big East championship game, so we went into the NCAA Tournament missing two First?Team All?Americans. When we got to the Final Four and we ended up losing to Notre Dame that year, but I know exactly what it feels like to all of a sudden you've got to retool your team. It's not something that you wish on any team, and certainly you don't wish that kind of injury on any player. But I don't think Notre Dame is just Natalie Achonwa. I think they're a whole lot more than that. And if anybody thinks that that's all they are, they haven't played them enough times. That just means Joe Lloyd and Kayla McBride are going to take even more shots, which makes them more dangerous. Losing her really, really, really hurts. I guess we'll see this weekend how much.
Q. I realize I'm asking this question about a team that hasn't lost a game, but what for you up until this point did you or do you consider the key moment of the season, and why do you consider that the key moment of the season?
GENO AURIEMMA: Wow. Well, there's been moments, I believe. One moment was in the Stanford game when Kaleena went down and we played the whole second half without her, and we got some great contributions from the bench and we beat a really, really good team. That was one moment.
The next one was not long after, we played at Maryland without K, and I don't know if Morgan Tuck played. I don't think she did. So we played without Kaleena, without Morgan Tuck, and we went down at Maryland in front of 15,000 people and played a really, really good team and we got great contributions from guys off the bench, and still we took over the game. That was another great moment.
I think those two games maybe let everybody on our team know that, hey, it doesn't matter whether we have everybody or most everybody. We may have it in us to just persevere and overcome no matter who we're missing. I mean, there's certainly a limit to how many people you can play without, don't get me wrong. I wouldn't want to go through next weekend missing one or two key players.
I think those two games early in the season really showed us an awful, awful lot.
Q. Can you just talk about Stewie's goofy personality and how well it balances or complements her skills and her serious approach to the game?
GENO AURIEMMA: Well, she certainly has a different personality than you would expect. Someone from the outside looking in would probably be surprised to know that Stewie doesn't really take herself too seriously. She's not one to make everything about her. She's not one of those prima donna types. She's not one of those me?me?me looking for attention types that we've seen in the NCAA Tournament recently. She's just more about winning. She's just more about I go, I play the game, and everybody says I'm a great player, and everybody heaps all this stuff on me, and she tries really, really hard to live up to that all the time. It doesn't always work out that way. She really struggled this weekend, and one of the reasons why she does struggle is she really wants to be great, and she wants to be great every minute of every game, and that's a lot more someone who's a sophomore and young.
But I do think one of her biggest strengths is that she doesn't take herself way too seriously and that she just acts like a normal college kid who's a sophomore who has been blessed with a lot of things and doesn't want any more than that. Just wants to play basketball.
That's what I love about Stewie, when she committed and she signed, no fanfare, no nothing. We don't have an entourage, we don't have bodyguards following us around. We don't need to hire anybody to protect her from anybody. She's just a normal kid who loves to play basketball, and that's why we all love her.
Q. Natalie's injury notwithstanding, do you feel like this Final Four has a little bit different aura or dynamic considering there are two unbeaten teams going into it?
GENO AURIEMMA: I do, but not for?? not internally. For us internally we're getting ready to play Stanford, and it's no different than us last year getting ready to play Notre Dame regardless of what their record was, regardless of what our record was. We've entered the tournament undefeated a number of times, and I know what the hype is surrounding that, and I know how everyone throughout this season has wanted to make it about this inevitable march towards two undefeated teams playing for the national championship.
I've kind of not bought into any of that, so I don't really feel that. I kind of don't like when you have a sense of like you're disrespecting people, and I wouldn't want either Maryland or Stanford to feel like we're just there as filler for the Notre Dame Connecticut big thing, because I've been there, I've seen it, and I don't like it.
So we're just preparing as if we would anything else. I know it's a great story, and I know everybody loves story lines, and in today's day and age God forbid if you don't have a story line, we'll just create one. So fortunately there is a story line. And the story line, God bless them, is two teams that are undefeated. Great. As opposed to years past when it's individuals.
This is a team sport, and I'm glad that there's two teams that are undefeated. But I caution everybody, there's two other teams out there that are good enough to win a national championship, so let's not write that story just yet.
Q. I wanted to ask you, yesterday with all the buzz about Tyler Summitt being hired as a 23 year old. I wanted to see if you can recall what you might have been like as a head coach of a Division I school at 23.
GENO AURIEMMA: (Laughing) When I was 23, actually when I was 23 I was driving a truck for a friend of mine, for my dad's friend who owned five supermarkets. I'm not sure that I was confident that I was going to be able to keep that job, so I wasn't really in a position to do anything like I guess Tyler is going to be doing at Louisiana Tech.
It's been an interesting couple of days, I guess, in women's basketball with the last couple of hires, both at Arkansas and at Louisiana Tech generating a lot of buzz in the women's basketball world. Like they say, any kind of publicity is good publicity. I think when you're young and it's your first head coaching job and you've only been a coach for a couple of years, I think two years as an assistant, heck, I was 30 when I got the job here at Connecticut, and that was my first head coaching job, and I thought I knew everything about everything. Two years later I realized I didn't know anything about anything.
So I'm sure he's going to be overwhelmed at times, and I'm sure he's got a lot of great ideas that he's going to implement, and I'm sure he's going to have a great staff that's going to help him. That's just a tall task for a 30 year old, much less a 23 year old.
Q. Obviously you schedule your out of conference schedule with the idea of testing your team throughout the season. That really hasn't happened. How do you prepare when you have such a large margin of victory for what might be some tight games at the end, and are you at all concerned about how your team will react?
GENO AURIEMMA: Well, you schedule the games that you think would be really good games to play. You hope that those games are competitive, and you hope that your team comes out of there with a certain knowledge of themselves and what it takes to win games. You can't orchestrate what the score is going to be. You can't say, okay, well, we just played four of the top 10 teams in the country, and , I wish some of them would have gone into triple overtime so we could find out how we would do in those kind of games. It just didn't happen. People say, what are you going to do. Hey, I hope both of these games we're up 25 with three minutes to go and I don't have to worry about it.
But the reality is whatever happens, whether it's a close game, not a close game, I think we've proven in the past as coaches that it's all about putting your players in the position to make plays. It works the other way, too. You can also have the kind of team where your players feel like it doesn't matter what happens, we're good enough to win every game we play, regardless of what the score is, regardless of what the situation is. That doesn't mean if we're in a close game we're definitely going to win it, it doesn't mean we're going to lose it. But it won't be because we're not prepared or we haven't been in any games. If you look back, every single one of these kids has been in a close game and then some during the three or four years that they've been at Connecticut, so I'm not really worried about it.
Q. Earlier in this conversation today, you mentioned Stefanie Dolson, and we've seen her, of course, over the course of her career, and she's really evolved, and I just wanted to hear from you about her evolution.
GENO AURIEMMA: Stefanie Dolson is one of the great success stories that I've ever been around in all my years of coaching, high school, girls, boys, college. It doesn't matter. For someone to come out of high school and for her to do what she's done, and not just do it anywhere, it's one thing if you're a big kid and you go to a mid?major or you go to a place where nobody is paying attention, and all of a sudden before you know it somebody looks up and goes, wow, what happened to that kid, she turned out to be really good. You're doing it at Connecticut, you're doing it in the spotlight, you're doing it against the best teams in the country on national television, and she got exposed as a freshman early of what she couldn't do, all the things that she had to get good at.
Stefanie's sophomore year in the Final Four, we lost, and she made a commitment at that point in time, this is never going to happen again, and went about and changed how she trained and how she was going to look and how she was going to prepare and made herself into the best center in the country. A lot of kids say they want it. A lot of kids talk about it. A lot of kids wish they could do it. But we're talking about somebody who actually set her mind to something and did it and has done it as well if not better than any kid I've ever coached in my life.
Q. No one has come within 11 points of you this season, your teams have lost 11 games in the last six years. Talk about how you create adversity just to keep it fun for yourself, for your players, just to keep yourselves interested.
GENO AURIEMMA: That's a good question. I've been known to keep things interesting at practice, and creating adversity has never been a problem for me in practice and creating situations where we have certain things that are monumental that can't get through. I kind of enjoy that, and I teach my players how to enjoy that, how to embrace how hard it is. You've got to?? the joy in doing something is creating an atmosphere where it's just so difficult to do it that when you do accomplish it, there is a tremendous sense of self?satisfaction, and it's not fake, either. It's not like you get kids today who they jog up the floor and you've got coaches clapping going, way to run, baby, way to run.
For us it's?? the kids love it. Like I'll give you a perfect example, and I can relate back to some of my teams. It's a little different today, don't get me wrong. You have to work a little bit harder today to get players to really embrace the challenge because there's so few challenges that they face growing up. What's their biggest challenge: Which AAU team to play for. What's their biggest challenge: Should I get three pairs of sneakers this weekend or four. There's very few challenges, so we would lose seven games in a weekend, so what, I'm not really playing for my team, I'm playing for the college coaches to come and watch me play. I'm not really interested in winning, I'm interested in how many scholarship offers I'm going to get. They don't face many challenges.
I remember we would play?? and like every coach does, every coach does this, you play four or four, and maybe you put five defenders and four offensive players or maybe six defenders and four offensive players, or four offensive players on your team and five defenders for them or five offensive players for them, four?? you just keep changing things around as you go. I remember we were playing one time, and it was five of our guys against seven of them. So there's 12 people on the floor, we were playing five against seven. Our guys kind of got a kick out of it. Yeah, let's see how many times we can get stops. And then a week later it was five against eight, and it was like Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Every once in a while they would get a couple stops and they would feel unbelievably good about that. Then the following week I went five against six; they looked at me like, what, you think we stink? We aren't seven anymore or eight?
So once you create that challenge, then all of a sudden they start to look for challenges. But they need to be challenged every minute of every day, and I just don't think that kids that we get today?? me all the way down, I don't think they face enough challenges throughout their high school careers. So that's one of the biggest things we try to teach them: Embrace the challenge, embrace how hard it is. That's what makes winning so special.
Q. You mentioned Moriah a ways back in this conference. I'm curious how many different ways could her career have gone after what was kind of a tough freshman season? Was it a certainty in your mind coming off last season that we would eventually see who she is now?
GENO AURIEMMA: Well, I think that's the big question that every player has to answer: What am I going to do between my freshman year and sophomore year to prove that I belong at this level, because freshman year at Connecticut, there's not?? there are expectations, don't get me wrong, but you also have a lot of leeway. You don't get necessarily scrutinized as much as some of the upperclassmen do. So last year?? Moriah's biggest problem was she didn't really believe that she could do all the things that I thought she could do, so I just kept looking at her incredulously going where's the kid I recruited out of high school that was so confident, so cocky, thought she could do anything any time anywhere with the basketball, offensively, defensively, and now there's this kid who keeps looking over at the bench to see if everything is okay, can I do this, can I do that, should I try this, should I try that. I thought, you know, that's not the winning edge, and towards the end of the season that kind of got dispelled a little bit and a little bit more and a little bit more, and like with all the great players, they go through a summer between freshman and sophomore year where they figure things out, come back to practice, and she came in in September, and the very first day that we got together to practice, you could tell she was a different person. She went from should I, should I not, can I, do you think I can, to, Coach, this is what I'm going to do, and telling the other players this is what we're going to do. The transformation was absolutely incredible.
That's the player that we recruited. That's the Moriah Jefferson that we recruited. There's a lot of great guards out there, and certainly we played against all of them.
But right now I'd take Moriah Jefferson as a sophomore for the next couple years over anybody.