The 13 college kids who came to Connecticut to play basketball represent a cross section of students, from seniors to freshmen, from seasoned players with over 100 games in Husky blue behind them to transfers from other programs.
How do you build a unit out of so many parts?
If it’s a program headed by Luigi “Geno” Auriemma, you take them to your home. The 2017-18 UConn women’s basketball team got a head start on their season with an August trip to Italy, touching down on the soil where their coach spent the first six-plus years of his life.
They went sightseeing, they ate Italian food, they played four basketball games and they acted like kids on a summer vacation. Mostly, they bonded.
“Exactly what we needed,” Auriemma said. “What this team needed.”
This team happens to be the No. 1 team in the country. There is so much certainty, from the Hall of Fame coach to the four returning starters — three All-Americans and a Canadian Olympian.Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant UConn basketball players from front to back: Mikayla Coombs, Andra Espinoza-Hunter, Alexis Gordon, Megan Walker, Batouly Camara, Antwoine Anderson, Kwintin Williams, Azurá Stevens, Sidney Wilson, Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley, Eric Cobb, David Onuorah, Josh Carlton. UConn basketball players from front to back: Mikayla Coombs, Andra Espinoza-Hunter, Alexis Gordon, Megan Walker, Batouly Camara, Antwoine Anderson, Kwintin Williams, Azurá Stevens, Sidney Wilson, Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley, Eric Cobb, David Onuorah, Josh Carlton. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)
But like every season, there are unknowns. The program is also returning three sophomores and welcoming four freshmen. There are two transfers (Azura Stevens and Batouly Camara) who spent last season watching and are returning to competitive basketball this season.
How will they all mesh off the court? How will the newcomers integrate on the court?
The European vacation helped answer both questions.
“Italy was a way for us to get to know each other off the court,” Kia Nurse, the Canadian senior guard, said. “I think we did a lot more off the court than we did on the court, but we also got some games under our belt, and we could kind of see where we are individually, where we are as a team, and where we want to be.”
By the time the group gathered for its first fall practice in October, it was, well, a team. Chemistry, that undefinable but so important thread of every successful team, was already percolating.
That’s what happens when a team has coaches such as Auriemma and Chris Dailey. After assembling so many teams over so many years, the coaches at UConn know the drill.
With this year’s team, the trip served as an exercise in building a group dynamic. And given the personalities that UConn recruits, that’s not an arduous process.
“The thing about our freshmen and our transfers is that we get really good kids, and we get kids who are ready to kind of meet the challenge,” senior Gabby Williams said. “So building the chemistry isn’t really too difficult.”
Auriemma often talks about recruiting the right people for his program. Not every high school talent can play at UConn, he says.
As for transfers, the process is very much the same. Camara was recruited heavily by UConn out of high school, so the coaches knew her well. Stevens, who knew some UConn players through USA Basketball, had the reputation as a likable and coachable player.
As transfers become more prevalent in the college game, coaches all over the country are learning to integrate established players in their program. Notre Dame has two transfers this season — guard Lili Thompson is a graduate student after playing at Stanford while forward Jessica Shepard was cleared to play immediately by the NCAA after transferring from Nebraska.
“We just treat them like freshmen,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “They’re new, so we try to really have the seniors talk about the culture of the team and some of the unwritten rules, the way that we do things. We do talk a lot about the rules of conduct and how we want to represent Notre Dame. And then, a lot of just basketball. A lot of stuff off the court, which I think is as important as on the court.”Patrick Raycraft / Hartford Courant UConn women basketball players Kia Nurse, from left, Napheesa Collier, and Katie Lou Samuelson pose for a group photograph at the 2017 American Athletic Conference Basketball Media Day in Philadelphia. UConn women basketball players Kia Nurse, from left, Napheesa Collier, and Katie Lou Samuelson pose for a group photograph at the 2017 American Athletic Conference Basketball Media Day in Philadelphia. (Patrick Raycraft / Hartford Courant)
Really, one can lead to the other. If a group of players click off the court, the chemistry will bleed into practice and games.
That’s why the trip to Italy and other team-building activities are vital for UConn. Williams said upperclassmen help freshmen transition to not only the program, but to college life in general.
Last season, viewers witnessed the team gathering for a meal prepared by Williams. The group bonding was useful for Stevens and Camara last season, and it’s vital for the four freshmen — Mikayla Coombs, Lexi Gordon, Andra Espinoza-Hunter, Megan Walker — this season.
“Freshman year is hard,” Williams said. “Freshman year is hard for anybody. Being a transfer, it can help that you have some experience, but it can even be harder trying to integrate into another team. … It is tough to get through.”
Once relationships and trust are established, the team’s performance will be enhanced. That’s the way it’s been at UConn, year after year.
Nurse, a senior who started on two national champions, treats each season as a new experience.
“Every team is different. Every player is different,” Nurse said. “We have six new faces this year, and being able to find that chemistry on the court, it starts in practice. It’s, ‘OK, here’s the mistake you made. Let’s fix it the next time.’ Keep holding each other accountable. Those kinds of things are important for us.”
For UConn this season, the on-court chemistry is established among the four returning starters. A year ago, the Huskies were facing a season without three of the best players in the country — Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, Morgan Tuck — and roles were shifting for returning players.
By the spring, the chemistry was strong. There were games, Auriemma said, when his team flowed at the same level as the previous year. It all meshed expectedly quick.
This year? Nurse, Williams, Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier are like a tight, well-rehearsed band. They complement one another and play with an obvious flow.
The fifth starter last season was guard Saniya Chong, who was an important piece in the team’s success. Chong was a steady ball-handler, an efficient passer and occasional scorer with perimeter range.Patrick Raycraft / Hartford Courant UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson, at right, grabs a Wichita television reporter's microphone and interviews teammate Gabby Williams at the 2017 American Athletic Conference Basketball Media Day in Philadelphia. UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson, at right, grabs a Wichita television reporter's microphone and interviews teammate Gabby Williams at the 2017 American Athletic Conference Basketball Media Day in Philadelphia. (Patrick Raycraft / Hartford Courant)
Replacing Chong is not simple. Simply slotting the 6-foot-6 Stevens into the starting lineup disrupts the balance.