UConn plays it cool before showdown
Huskies emphasize that Baylor outcome has no bearing on ultimate goal of an NCAA title
STORRS, Conn. -- OK, it's finally time. No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 2 Baylor. The first potential "streak-buster" of the 2010-11 season. During ESPN's 24 hours of hoops Tuesday (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET), the women will get their stage, with Maya Moore and Brittney Griner as the headliners.
Lots of observers have been talking about it for months. UConn coach Geno Auriemma has been thinking about it for you mean seriously thinking about it? Well, he actually just started that process.
Here's why: Part of winning 79 consecutive games -- the first victory of this season for UConn came in a 117-37 demolition of Holy Cross on Sunday -- is not thinking about how many wins in a row you have. It's going out for every game like you're giving a performance in a play: You want to show your best each time.
Junior guard Tiffany Hayes certainly did, setting a school record for points in a half with 30; she made 11 of 13 shots in the first half. She finished the game with 32, as the UConn coaching staff got a chance to look at all the Huskies in this game.
Never mind that the purple-clad Crusaders were accurately dressed for the part of grapes about to be squashed. The Huskies still kept their focus going into Sunday on playing Holy Cross and not looking ahead to Tuesday. For good reason: There are several questions about this UConn team with the loss of two starters to graduation and another to injury. So each game is about finding answers, or at least furthering that process.
So when reporters asked about how the Huskies would deal with, among other things, the 6-foot-8 Griner, Auriemma shrugged.
"Believe me, whatever questions you guys have, I have the same questions," he said. "I'm just trying to make up the answers as I go along."
If you don't quite buy that, it's understandable. A program that has won seven NCAA titles, including the past two with perfect seasons, is going to be very well-prepared for the Baylor game. But whether the preparation will work is another story. After all, Auriemma does have five freshmen.
"Those guys are so clueless it's unbelievable," he said, then jokingly (kind of) singled out one of them. "Samarie Walker doesn't know any one of our plays. You think she knows anything about a streak?
"If we had everybody back from last season, I would be having some fun with this. But it's not the same team, so I can't put this on them."
As you can see, Auriemma was again pulling from his bottomless supply of quips. Walker had 12 points Sunday, while her fellow freshman Bria Hartley had 18. He probably figured neither one needed to not feel too good about herself.
Auriemma said he's fine if the streak keeps going, but he's also fine if it ends. The goal is to win the upcoming national championship, making it another three-peat, as UConn did in 2002-04.
But Auriemma just isn't going to stress about the additional "burden" of trying to stay perfect a third year in a row, too. He isn't going to let anyone else lay that load on the Huskies, either.
While he knows a lot of the sport's fans might be eager to watch UConn finally lose again, he also thinks some folks want to see the Huskies get past UCLA's Division I men's NCAA hoops record of 88 victories as some sort of great validation of women's basketball. Auriemma wants no part of such talk.
He also said something about not being Joan of Arc, "carrying the torch for the whole game." Maybe he accidentally mixed metaphors there -- without going into too much of a history-class diversion, it's safe to say you don't think of a torch as, um, a good thing in the Joan of Arc tale -- or maybe he did it on purpose.
After all, Auriemma's end game, winning the NCAA title, hasn't changed. Hyping the streak could end up being damaging to that cause if too much importance is attached to it. By virtually guaranteeing that UConn will lose at some point this season, Auriemma is effectively laying the groundwork for the end of the streak -- if it does occur -- to not overdramatically impact his team.
Senior star Maya Moore, who had 21 points Sunday, essentially said the same thing -- though she didn't bring Joan of Arc into it -- by speculating on what would happen if the Huskies did lose Tuesday, or any other time in the regular season or Big East tournament.
"Our point of view is, we still have a chance to accomplish our goal at the end of the season," Moore said. "It's so early it's not the NCAA tournament. It's not win-or-go-home. We'll still have practice the next day.
"If you're a competitor, you want to win. Even though in the long run, it's not going to make that much of a difference. But as far as the course our season can take, it's not going to change."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.