After barely tapping the breaks during their 12-game ride through non-conference opponents, UConn heads in a new direction Sunday as a charter member of the American Athletic Conference against Cincinnati at Gampel Pavilion.
For the No. 1 Huskies (12-0), stellar competition during 18 of its final 19 regular-season games may be an occasional pleasure. Only Louisville, who UConn defeated in last year’s national championship game, is ranked in the Top 25. UConn plays them twice, as it will each of its nine conference opponents.
UConn has already defeated five ranked teams this season by an average of 22 points. Other than Louisville, its only ranked opponent from now until the NCAA Tournament begins in March at No. 9 Baylor on Jan. 13.
For Geno Auriemma, the biggest challenge may be keeping his team focused and sharp.
“I’ve had some fun with that question,” Auriemma said. “I get it in recruiting. People want to know what conference are you in? Who are you playing? What level of competition exists in your conference?
“What do we have, 18 conference games? That’s 18 nights playing basketball. Rutgers just beat Georgia, so they are pretty good. Louisville is pretty good. So those are four games that are going to be pretty good right off the top of my head.
“But if we just gauge our improvement with how we play in those 18 games, we do a disservice to who we are. I will know if we are getting better. I will not need the score of those games. I will know if we are getting better. There are a lot of teams that play in great conferences, play great competition all year long, then get their [butts] beat in the NCAA tournament.
“It doesn’t matter who we are playing, I will know if we are going to get better.”
The Huskies have not played since beating California by 33 points at Madison Square Garden Dec. 2. But after Sunday, things begin to pick up with games at Central Florida (Jan. 1) and Memphis (Jan. 4).
“After playing Duke and Cal, we are really confident in what we are doing but still there is still a lot to be gained in practice,” said UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart, who was named the AAC Player of Week on Monday after averaging 26.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in the wins over Duke and Cal. “Everybody is really clicking and it is only going to help us going into the conference schedule.”
Cincinnati, coached by Jamelle Elliott, the former UConn player and assistant, has been some great ball in its non-conference schedule. They beat Ohio State for the first time since 1988 and held Xavier to 26 points.
Still, the Bearcats are going to have their hands full staying with UConn, which hasn’t allowed them more 60 points since 2006 and has won all eight meetings. But Auriemma has learned over the years that teaching opportunities abound in all situations.
“There are things you take for granted, like every pass is going to be great, every pass is going to be sharp,” Auriemma said. “Everything you do will be well orchestrated. But things are always a work in progress. You are always trying to make some improvement, somewhere, mostly individually. You do learn nothing is automatic.
“You can have high expectations, which we do as a team. But they remind you every once in a while that there’s going to be times when they struggle and you need to hang in there with them and get them through.
“We’re really good. I’d be lying if I sat here and said that we weren’t. We’re really, really good. I’m not one of these coaches that says, `We just want to compete and hope we make the NCAA tournament and see what happens. …We’re really good.
“But I also think that if we sit around and believe that, we’re not going to get any better. I just assume the teams we’ve beaten already are going to get better. If they don’t then that’s their problem. But I assume that they’re going to get better. So I think we’ve got to keep getting better.”