There are 16 new faces entered in the 25th annual American Century Championships, but none come in more heralded than UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma.
The 60-year-old Auriemma has taken a moribund UConn program that had just one winning season before he started in 1985 into the most storied women’s basketball program in the country.
Since 1985, Auriemma has guided the Huskies to nine NCAA championships en route to compiling a record of 879-133. The Huskies have won 19 regular-season titles and 18 Big East post-season titles. The veteran coach has been named the AP Coach of the Year seven times and he’s guided the U.S. Olympic team to three gold medals, and he will be the coach for the 2016 team in Rio de Janeiro.
Auriemma said he’s looking forward to his first trip to Lake Tahoe to play in the annual event. The oddsmakers have him at 50-1.
“At 50-1, I wouldn’t advise anybody to put money on that unless they are a bad gambler,” said Auriemma, who was on a conference call with Mike Eruzione and Vinny Del Negro Tuesday morning to publicize the event which runs July 18-20. “My game is OK, not great. I’ve seen some of these guys play and watched them on TV.
“I’m not going out there to win the tournament. It’s all about the camaraderie, having fun and enjoying people. I’m bringing my son who is 25 out there with me.”
While Auriemma admits there is no pressure playing in the ACC, he said there will be nothing but pressure when he takes the USA team to Brazil in quest of a sixth straight Olympics title.
“Any time you put on a USA basketball jersey and go play internationally the pressure is great,” Auriemma said. “We are expected to win every game, whether it’s a friendly or exhibition game. The pressure to win is intense. Usually we’re there with the men, so we’re constantly being compared to the greatest players in the world. We’ve got to be good. We’ve got to be better than good. We’ve won five straight Olympic titles. The last time we lost was in 1992.
“Is there pressure? Of course there is. Having coached at UConn, I’m used to it. We have the best team.”
When Auriemma was asked who he thought the best women’s basketball player was, he didn’t hesitate.
“I think personally the best player I’ve ever seen or coached would have to be Diana Taurasi (formerly of UConn),” Auriemma said. “She won three NCAA championships when she was here at UConn, and two of the times she did it with freshmen and sophomores, and she won three gold medals in the Olympics. I don’t think there has been a better winner than Diana.”
Auriemma is now coaching former Reed star Gabby Williams, who has enrolled at UConn. Williams is coming of two ACL surgeries, and it’s uncertain what her role will be on this year’s team.
“You spend a lot of time worrying,” Auriemma said. “One ACL is unfortunate and two ACLs is unfair. The first one didn’t take. The second one we can work with that. Gabby will work really hard on her rehab. It (redshirting) is not something we’ve talked about. I’ve not talked to her or family. We’re certainly not going to rush things. We won’t have her on the floor until she’s ready to go.
“It (the recovery time) is different for different people. The doctors say six months. It doesn’t begin to tell you how much effort and hard work goes into it. It takes a year before you are 100 percent mentally and physically ready to play. You look at Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls). The higher level you play, the longer it takes to get mentally comfortable. She looks good. She is working with our training staff and team doctors.”
Official practice starts Oct. 15, and that will give Auriemma a better idea on Williams’ status. He’s excited, however, to have her at UConn.
“Gabby is one of the best athletes that I’ve been around,” Auriemma said. “When you are a high school sophomore and you come in fifth in the Olympic qualifier in the high jump, you have a lot going for you.”
Auriemma indicated Williams has put track and field on hold for now.
What makes Williams so special is her ability to make players around her better. That is the sign of a great player.
“When you watch her on the basketball court, the kid can do things that a lot of basketball players can’t,” Auriemma said. “It’s unfortunate she is coming off an ACL tear. I’m expecting great things from Gabby. She is a great kid who loves the game of basketball. She is going to have a lot of people talking about her by the time she is finished playing here at Connecticut.”