It would be overly generous to describe UConn’s first season in the American Athletic Conference as competitive. It has been quite far from that.
The Huskies have won their first 15 conference games by an average of 38.9 points, a margin that may have cracked 40 had Louisville not fought the Huskies to within 17 points on Feb. 9 at Gampel Pavilion.
For example, on Saturday, in Geno Auriemma’s 1000th game, UConn put a second 50-point beating on Houston (91-40) in a building so empty and seemingly disinterested in what was going on it made you wonder what the point was.
But the event was very instructive; this is the very battle Auriemma wages daily with his No. 1 team (28-0).
No matter how easy it looks, how quickly victory takes to complete, he wants his players attentive and goal-oriented when it plays their overmatched conference opponents.
That will be the case Tuesday again when the Huskies play SMU, a team they dispatched by 61 points (102-41) on Feb. 4 at Gampel Pavilion. And think about this: the Mustangs have the AAC’s leading scorer, guard Keena Mays.
Mays has scored at least 20 points on 15 different occasions this season and is the first player in program history to have four 30-point games in one season.
She scored 20 points against UConn in their last meeting, but was 8-for-24 from the floor. Her teammates scored only six baskets in a game SMU trailed 54-19 at the half and shot just 20 percent (14-for-70).
Auriemma wants his players to just block out the obvious.
“Regardless of whom you are playing, where you are playing, what time of day it is, if you are going to put your sneakers on and run on the court, you have to play,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes kids, because of human nature, just say, ‘Ah, whatever, we are going to win. What’s the point [of playing hard]?”
“Well, there is a point. If there wasn’t a point, then maybe we should have just called Houston and said, ‘Look, last time we beat you by this much, why don’t we just make the score the same again and call it a day?’ If you are going to come down here then you have to [be willing to] play.”
Auriemma – and UConn program – desperately needs the quality of play in the AAC to improve since there is no way to predict how long it will remain in this new hodgepodge world.
And Auriemma has not publicly assailed what he has seen. And there is a reason; two of his former assistants, Tonya Cardoza (Temple) and Jamelle Elliott (Cincinnati) coach teams in the AAC. And he has good friends, like South Florida’s Jose Fernandez, running others.
But in the first 15 conference games, the Huskies have held opponents to a shooting percentage of 28.9 and an average of just 45.2 points.
So what Auriemma preaches places an emphasis on playing a game within the game.
“Look, we’re not really playing against Houston or SMU, and there’s no disrespect intended when I say that,” Auriemma said. “We want to win, but the point is not how much we can win by. We are trying to prepare for the NCAA Tournament.”
That is why Auriemma was so unhappy with the first half Saturday at Houston, even though the Huskies led, 40-16. He didn’t see the energy or cohesion displayed that will be required to beat the final four teams on his schedule, in March and April in the NCAA Tournament.
And that is what this is all about.
“We understand that every game we play in the conference is not going to be super competitive,” senior Bria Hartley said. “But we need to stay motivated, and to be very good takes hard focus on what your team is doing. And that it is improving every day. He always wants us to maintain that mindset.
“I think this team has shown a lot more consistency that last year’s did. Last year. I don’t know, if was a collective struggle at times. Then when March came, we kind of went on a roll.”
Senior Stefanie Dolson said the ability to use every minute to its productive best is a learned skill.
“When you are a freshman and sophomore, it is hard to understand [what the point is],” Dolson said. “It’s easy to just go out there and start to wander once you get up by 10 or 20.
“Once you’re a senior, you understand that the point is to get better, even if you have to think of it [a game] as a practice, a chance to run our offense. As you mature, you bring that mindset into every game to just play as hard as you can.”