Huskies' starting five is best in the field
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Moments after watching his team rally from a halftime deficit to tame upset-minded Wisconsin-Green Bay in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Geno Auriemma opened his postgame news conference by taking a playful jab at Phoenix coach Kevin Borseth's pregame assertion that his team would have trouble scoring two points against the Huskies, let alone enough to win the game.
"Yesterday, I heard their coach was worried about how his team was going to score points against us today," Auriemma said Tuesday night. "As soon as someone starts talking like that, you know they're confident."
Well, sure. After all, Auriemma should know.
When it comes to his tete-a-tetes with the media horde that follows the Huskies on a daily basis, Connecticut's coach rarely relies on subtlety or subtext. Willing to say anything, as long as he gets to say it with his trademark acerbic wit, Auriemma puts more on the table in one answer than some coaches do in an entire tournament's worth of responses.
But in spinning arguably his team's biggest strength as its potential downfall, he's writing a dissertation on underselling. And based on what he said about Borseth, that ought to have the rest of the teams in the Fresno Regional, if not the entire bracket, very worried.
"I don't know that we have a whole bunch of weapons, other than we need all five of our guys to play well, especially now, when you're playing good teams," Auriemma said. "I think at this time of year there's no way one of our guys can just take the team on their back and just get 30 or 35. It's just not going to happen. I hope it happens, but I'm not counting on it."
The coach says the Huskies can't win unless they get contributions from all five starters? Then it's a good thing he has the most talented starting five in the field.
Pushed far more against the Phoenix than the final 24-point margin of victory suggested, Auriemma relied almost exclusively on Tina Charles, Kalana Greene, Charde Houston, Renee Montgomery, Mel Thomas and erstwhile starter Ketia Swanier. The five starters each played at least 32 minutes, and with Swanier, the top six combined to play 190 of the 200 minutes available in the game.
It's a rotation that sometimes expands based on Brittany Hunter's health or Auriemma's patience with Kaili McLaren, but what you see is basically what you get. Which is a fact that ought to worry opposing coaches much more than it worries Connecticut's skipper.
"We're at our best when all five of our starters are involved in the offense and getting their touches, sharing the ball and taking advantage of mismatches," Auriemma said. "I think it's hard for teams to match that. Even Wisconsin-Green Bay tonight, they had a couple of things going for them that was just really impressive to see, but they didn't have five guys going for them. And I think that was the difference."
All five regular starters -- they combined for all but five of 170 possible starts in Connecticut's first 34 games -- led the Huskies in scoring at least five times this season. Charles led nine times, Houston eight times, Greene seven, Montgomery seven and Thomas five. But the cohesion on display as all five scored between 16 and 21 points against Wisconsin-Green Bay was the product of a season's worth of growth from a group that includes one freshman, two sophomores and three juniors.
"I think everybody as team knows the offensive sets better and we know what we're looking for as a team," Swanier said.
In no small part, that's due to Montgomery and Swanier seizing the reigns of the offense under a coach used to excellence from his point guards.
"He expects a lot out of us, because he says we're like the quarterbacks out there," Swanier said. "And if the quarterbacks are doing terrible, then you really don't have a big chance of winning. So me and 'Ne [Montgomery] just have it on our shoulders to run the offense. You know, the ball is in our hands 95 percent of the time, so we've got to know what decision to make with the ball, that's a big thing."
Of course, the point guards have a lot to work with. Even if Auriemma is right that no single player will start scoring 30 points a night during the final two weekends, the Huskies have plenty of star power. As the coach himself has pointed out on a case-by-case basis throughout the season, Charles, Greene and Houston each have the kind of individual skills that set them apart from all but a handful of players in the country.
Auriemma on Houston after the opening-round win against Maryland-Baltimore County: "I have always taken great pride that at Connecticut if you have it in you, we'll find it and get it out of you somehow, someway. You might not necessarily like how we do it sometimes, but we'll get it. I didn't know when it was going to be that time for Charde, and I think she's played as well as anybody. It's unfortunate what happened against Rutgers [in the Big East tournament], because up until that point I thought she was the best player in the tournament until that last game."
Auriemma on Charles after the win against Wisconsin-Green Bay: "I said this before, and I haven't seen every team in the country, but I don't think there's a freshman in the country that's had the impact on their team that Tina Charles has had on our team. I think she's had the best year any player in America has had. I don't care what the stats are, I don't know anyone who has transformed their team to the level that we're at like she has. Imagine how good she's going to be down the road."
Auriemma on Greene after a January win against DePaul: "Kalana's able to create her own offense, whether it's to go get her own shot or go offensive rebound because she's so difficult to find. I don't think people expect her to be able to get to the ball that quickly. She's probably as good as anybody that we've had at finishing her shot."
Throw in Thomas, who is shooting 42 percent from behind the 3-point arc while averaging 10.7 points this season, and while Auriemma might be entirely correct that his team can't win without a balanced attack, that sentiment might disguise the truth that the Huskies are emerging as favorites precisely because of it.
"I think we're not limited to doing anything," Greene said. "We've got five people on the floor at all times that are able to take over a game, but we're not trying to take over by ourselves."
There have been groups with this kind of balance before, but then again, the Flying Wallendas didn't play basketball.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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