Sally Jenkins: Connecticut’s formula – practice, practice, practice


Sally Jenkins

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It wasn’t just that the University of Connecticut was bigger than everyone else. The Huskies were also better, so much better they made the rest of the country look like they were still playing in jumpers. They had size, but they also had more edge, more precision, and more scrap. When not even previously unbeaten No. 2 University of Notre Dame could stay within 20 in the national championship game, you were left with a sense of admiring exasperation: Why can’t the rest of the women’s game be this good? After all the staccato scoring bursts and the hectic, pressing yet always controlled pace, the Huskies had won a record ninth championship, 79-58, and everyone in the Bridgestone Arena was exhausted just watching them. There had hardly been a lazy pass, a slow foot, or an idle hand all night. One thing was obvious: Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma teaches the game at a different elevation.

The Fighting Irish have been the only team to remotely challenge Connecticut’s dominance in the past two years of back-to-back titles, and you wonder what this game might have been if they hadn’t lost their senior forward Natalie Achonwa to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the Elite Eight. Without her, they were fatally vulnerable in the paint, where they gave up 52 points.

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But Connecticut’s size advantage didn’t explain how the Huskies passed on the move. How they set big screens, spaced wide, cut hard, and flew up the floor to make it so easy for Breanna Stewart (21 points) and Stephanie Dolson (17). Or how ridiculously hard and ruthlessly efficient they played possession by possession no matter the time and score. “We just kept pushing it at them,” Dolson said. “We just did what we wanted, and finished it.”

Which raised an uncomfortable question for the entire sport: How has Connecticut so separated itself from everyone else? Why are they visibly so much more disciplined, efficient, buffed and polished, than almost everybody else?

“Maybe they’re not as anal,” joked Connecticut assistant Chris Daly.

A few, select teams can hang with them and look as well coached – a few. Notre Dame of course, and Stanford, Baylor, Texas A&M universities come to mind, and the University of Tennessee in the days before Pat Summitt got sick. But those are rare exceptions. In general they are a major cut above their competition, and it isn’t just because they recruit superior athletes. Listen to Auriemma talk about his method, and what emerges is a relentless attention to the details of execution. They have to tie their hair a certain way, and literally hit marks he tapes on the floor. So why don’t more programs teach like he does?

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“That’s a good question, and it’s hard to answer,” Auriemma said the day before the title game, hanging in a back hallway of the Bridgestone Arena. One reason, he believes, is the lingering problem of low expectations, a gender bias in the women’s game. Too many coaches ease up and demand less because they view their players through a female lens.

“I know guys in women’s basketball, and I know women in women’s basketball, who treat them like women,” Auriemma said. “And that’s being disrespectful to them, instead of just treating them as elite athletes and demanding that they reach a certain level.”

But another difference is that Auriemma is simply obsessive about teaching his players how to achieve flow, and pace. Ask him to describe his method, and he starts snapping his fingers. The snap-snap continues throughout the conversation. He insists that his athletes “Do it right, do it right, do it right, do it right, do it right,” he says. With every “right” there is a snap.

Here’s the phrase Auriemma utters most often to his players at practice. “Figure it out!” he bawls.

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If he says it once, he says it a hundred times. He halts practice every time a kid looks at him quizzically, and asks, “What do I do here?”

“Figure it out,” he insists. “What do you think you should do here? Why do you need me to tell you all the time what to do here?”

If they get in a game and they have to wonder what to do, he says, when their heads start swiveling toward him on the sideline with a questioning look, then every thing slows down. The ball gets stuck, and there’s no flow or rhythm. “Now all of a sudden it doesn’t look like a basketball team anymore,” he says. “It looks like something different.” Think about it: how many times do you see Auriemma’s players indecisive?

When they’re playing, he wants snap-snap-snap. “All the time, figure it out,” he says, snapping. “Make decisions.” Snap. “Think quickly.” Snap-snap. “Quickly!” Snap.

There are days, according to Daly, when the Huskies will work on a single offense for an hour straight until he gets the snap decisions he wants. “Could be longer,” she says. He puts tape on the floor, and drills over and over. “He just keeps doing it and doing it, until they get it right, but it’s not enough to get it right once,” she says. “They have to get it right again, and again, and again.”

Once, they worked on the same offensive concept for three straight weeks, she says, without practicing defense. Some days when the drills won’t end, and no one is getting it right, Daly tries to get him off his compulsive track. “Do you want to go on to something else, and then come back?” she’ll ask.

“No,” he says.

It’s the combination of intense pace and precise execution that sets them apart, Daly believes. “It’s mental,” she says. “How many people can get something consistently, exactly right for 30 straight minutes without making a mistake?”

The result was the best passing team in the country, leading the country in assists, the second-best shooting team in the country, and the best defense in the country. The only time the Huskies were truly threatened in the entire tournament was when Texas A&M crept within three points of them early in the second half of the Elite Eight.

“A great team just looks you in the face and says, `Is that all you got?’ ” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. “They came down and got two easy baskets before I could call timeout.”

The Irish experienced the same thing. The hope was if anyone could give the Huskies a game, surely Muffet McGraw’s Irish would; they were unbeaten, too, at 37-0, and she is as detail-oriented as he is, and almost as swaggering. She even picked a quarrel with Auriemma the day before the game when she said there was no “civility” between them because he doesn’t properly respect her. Before tip off, Auriemma just gave McGraw a huge smile and a slap on the shoulder. He wasn’t in the least bit threatened. Only 62 percent shooting from three-point range by the Irish kept it a game at halftime, 45-38. After that, the Huskies points came in surges and cadenzas. “I felt like we were playing the Miami Heat for awhile,” McGraw said. It was the flow Auriemma wanted.

“You come into every year knowing you have one goal,” Dolson said. “When you get there, there’s no other ending but winning.”

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Her father, legendary sportswriter/author Dan Jenkins, is profiled in this week’s Fort Worth Business Press. Read reporter Dave Montgomery’s story and Business Press/DRC Media CEO Richard Connor’s column.