Don't be fooled by Faris' poker face
UConn's only freshman is all business -- and gets the job done for Huskies
HARTFORD, Conn. -- It doesn't do Kelly Faris justice to say she does the little things on the court. What the Connecticut freshman does is more along the lines of basketball at the quantum level.
Fitting, since she appears to play with the seriousness of a particle physics lecture.
Stepping into the middle of what now stands as a 69-game winning streak as the only freshman on the roster for the defending champions, Faris has played more minutes than any other reserve for the Huskies. She has earned the time despite, or perhaps precisely because of, the fact that she has scored just 113 points in 30 games.
What she does is defend, keep the running game going and display the vision and basketball instincts of someone already among the game's best passers.
Faris might not be the best freshman in the nation, or even in the Big East, but it's not her solitary status as the only member of her class in Storrs that makes her the best freshman for this Connecticut team.
That was evident enough in early February against West Virginia. With the Huskies locked in a rare close game at halftime, in part because of hot -- and all too open -- shooting from Mountaineers guard Liz Repella, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma started Faris alongside regular starters Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Kalana Greene and Tiffany Hayes in the second half. With Faris draped all over her, Repella managed just two field goals the rest of the way, and the freshman's steal and conversion for a three-point play soon after the break sparked the Huskies in what ended as a typically decisive 80-47 final.
"She's not a freshman in a lot of ways," Auriemma said after that game. "She's also such a much better athlete than people think. When she gets on you defensively, it's not easy to get the shot you want."
All in all, it's easy to smile watching Faris play basketball, the same way it's easy to smile listening to a string quartet navigate its way through a piece of music. Yet like the musicians intent on transforming precise, practiced movements into something that sounds of the moment, it's equally unlikely you'll get a grin, or much of any visible emotion, out of Faris along the way.
Most players appear to take their task seriously on the court, but if not unique in that respect, Faris still takes the idea of the poker face to new heights of expressionlessness.
"Honestly, that's just kind of how I am; I have been since the time I was little," Faris explained. "I got it all through high school, too. And, I mean, it's not that I don't have fun -- I know it looks like I'm just mad at the world and don't have fun. I don't really notice it."
It turns out even a seemingly blank canvas can tell its share of words. The youngest of four children, Faris grew up in Plainfield, Ind., just outside Indianapolis, playing multiple sports but loving basketball. As she puts it, she was one of those kids who came out of the womb in possession of a follow-through. And where another kid stuck attending an older sibling's game against her will might have found any and all ways to kill time short of actually watching, Faris probably would have taken their game tape home for further study if given the option.
She's not a freshman in a lot of ways. She's also such a much better athlete than people think. When she gets on you defensively, it's not easy to get the shot you want.” -- UConn coach Geno Auriemma on Kelly Faris
"I would always sit and learn," Faris said. "And if I was just watching a sibling play, instead of running around and playing during the game, I liked to watch. And I would see something that somebody did that I didn't like, and I would make a mental note. Doing the little things was kind of always taught to me. Stuff that doesn't, maybe, doesn't always show up, which I don't really care -- as long as it's benefiting [the team], it's fine with me."
With that kind of mindset on his hands, a miniature Peyton Manning in the making right in the quarterback's professional backyard, Auriemma told the Connecticut media before the season that they would never see Faris play a bad game. Despite a broken nose suffered in practice in December that forced her to wear a protective mask, that bit of hyperbole even looked like a reasonable prediction for much of the fall and early winter. But Faris eventually did slump, a touch of hesitation dulling her instincts here, a wrong foot leaving her exposed there.
The facial expressions might never have changed, but it wasn't difficult for her coach to pick up on other signals. As is often true, it's best to let him take the story from there.
"I knew just by her body language during that stretch that something was up," Auriemma said. "I would just go up to her and say, 'What happened to you? Where did you go? You're not the same player that was here a month ago; what happened?'
"And she made an interesting point. She said, 'I'm trying to get everything done in the four minutes I'm in there.' And I said, 'Well, I know; you're going 100 miles an hour. You're going to get your minutes regardless.'
"Then I didn't play her in the Duke game and I said, "Now, how was that?' I said, 'You like that?' And she said, 'No.'
"I said, 'So when you get out there, are you gonna just enjoy being out there and have fun and play the way you can play instead of worrying about everything? Because the alternative is [the bench].' So she's been different ever since."
Faris might have the best poker face in the business, but even she was no match for Auriemma's mind games.
Fast-forward to a game against Rutgers in late January, a week after her bench duty in Durham, when Faris found herself the closest teammate to Kalana Greene after the senior earned an opportunity for a three-point play with a strong finish at the basket. One of the team's emotional pulses, Greene needed a celebratory outlet and she needed it right there. So Faris, making a one-time exception, obliged with the chest bump.
"I stood there for a second, and I wasn't going to do anything," Faris said, with a laugh. "And then she was all excited, so I was like, 'Ahhh, let her be excited; it was a good play.'"
As clinically dominant as Connecticut is on the court, it is a group best described as goofy away from the court under the watch of Moore, Charles, Greene and others. That might eventually rub off on Faris, or perhaps it already has, but the odds are she'll take the court for her own senior day in 2013 without betraying any of the emotions passing through her mind. And then she'll go out and play with an assassin's cool.
She is all about business, which is exactly what makes her such a pleasure to watch.
"I don't know: I'm just kind of a nonemotional person," Faris said. "I just go out and concentrate on what I'm doing, and I don't get too hyped. It was a bad thing for volleyball [in high school]; volleyball is definitely a hyped, cheering sport. That didn't turn out too well."
It's turning out pretty well for Connecticut.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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