UConn's Moore up to every challenge in freshman season
HARTFORD, Conn. -- The University of Connecticut's Maya Moore is the best freshman in women's college basketball. It's a distinction she shares with Kansas State's Michael Beasley on the men's side, just as she shared a stage with Beasley last spring during each player's respective McDonald's All-American Game.
Also like Beasley, Moore is playing well enough as a true freshman to be in the mix for national player of the year honors, even if she's a decided underdog behind Tennessee's Candace Parker.
Where the two paths might diverge is the point at which Moore's Huskies and Beasley's Wildcats depart the spotlight offered by March Madness. At that point, the whispers Beasley surely hears about his professional future might push him to the NBA.
Meanwhile, Moore will be looking at which classes to take next fall.
But what would she do if all those millions of dollars were on the table?
"It's a great hypothetical question," Moore mused.
In reality, it's only a hypothetical. Parker will leave a year of eligibility on the table when she enters the WNBA after this season, but she'll also have a degree in hand after a knee injury forced her to spend her first year at the University of Tennessee in street clothes during games. A few others, like Detroit Shock star Deanna Nolan, left college with eligibility remaining but were able to join the WNBA because their education was scheduled for completion in the same calendar year as the draft. But despite Moore's recent place in the middle of the latest scuffle between Connecticut and Tennessee over recruiting, college basketball on the women's side is still at its core a compound noun.
"Hopefully it will be coming to reality in my lifetime," Moore said wryly of a brighter economic picture for WNBA players. "I know a lot of guys, a lot of times there families are in a position where money would really change their lives like that. I can't be mad at anyone for trying to help their families or anything like that. But I think different guys go for different reasons -- some guys don't like school and are just ready to move on.
"But I personally like school; I'm enjoying my college experience. And it's really a blessing not to be distracted by it, because I think the college experience is great. Especially for women, making sure you get your college education, because after basketball it makes your life easier."
Three more years of Moore on the basketball court won't make life any easier for the coaches charged with trying to find ways to slow her. Watching her come off screens, battle for rebounds or speak extemporaneously about the realities of women's athletics, it's easy to forget that Moore is 18 years old. It's easy to forget that when the 2012 Olympics in London roll around, she'll be the same age Lindsey Harding was when she nearly won WNBA Rookie of the Year honors. It's easy to forget that Moore is a freshman.
"That's the thing," Connecticut sophomore Tina Charles explained. "She doesn't think as a freshman. That's the big thing about coming in and being the No. 1 high school player. You can't think like a freshman. You just have to go out there and just play your game, and that's what she's been doing every game on a consistent basis. Even at practice, she just always wants to get better."
Charles would know. She arrived in Storrs, Conn., two years ago as the nation's top prep recruit. And the big post more than lived up to the hype, playing through an injured shoulder to earn the award handed out to the Big East's top rookie. But even Charles didn't do this.
Moore leads the Huskies entering the NCAA tournament at 17.7 points per game. She scored in double figures in her first 31 college games and broke Svetlana Abrosimova's freshman scoring record at a school that has seen its share of talented newcomers. She's currently within two-tenths of a point of the best single-season scoring average Diana Taurasi managed in any of her four seasons.
Consider Moore's 3-point shooting as evidence of Charles' take on her teammate's practice habits. Split between the post and perimeter in high school, as she still is at Connecticut, Moore didn't necessarily arrive with a sharpshooter's profile. That's a little like saying Yo-Yo Ma isn't much of a carpenter, but there it is. She led the United States Under-19 national team to gold in last summer's World Championship but was just 6-of-21 on 3-pointers in nine games. In her first nine games for the Huskies, she hit just five shots from behind the arc.
But in the team's first game after Christmas she hit three 3-pointers. As Connecticut prepares to open its title bid against Cornell on Sunday, she would rank ninth in the nation in 3-point accuracy if not for falling five shots short of the minimum to qualify.
And yet the single most identifiable mark of Moore's freshman season might not be statistical but rather her familiar pose crossing midcourt at a dead sprint, back ramrod straight and cheeks full of air. Or it's the indelible image of her full-court sprint to steal the ball away from DePaul's Missy Mitidiero with the game on the line in Chicago.
"She's kept her composure," junior Renee Montgomery said. "She has hit the wall a couple of times, but she just continually fights her way through it and [doesn't] let it get the best of her. So I think just her work ethic is what's really impressive."
Geno Auriemma isn't ready to admit Moore can walk on water, not even the frozen variety that marks lakes and ponds across the Connecticut countryside for much of the hoops season. After her uncharacteristically poor performance against Pittsburgh in the semifinals of the Big East tournament, he broke out a variation of one of his most treasured gripes, suggesting Moore's next assist will be her first. He also opined after a win against Rutgers that the time might never come when he suggests his team won because it had Maya and the opponent didn't, as he famously did with Diana Taurasi.
But he does it all with either the stone-faced seriousness or sarcastic contrarianism of someone trying just a little too hard to bluff the four aces in his hand.
Not that the coach doesn't have a reason to keep pushing Moore. For one thing, it's already apparent she can take it. And for another, she might need it as the season comes to a close. Whether due to fatigue or simply infatuation, Moore did settle for 3-pointers during the Big East tournament at the expense of using her size and strength to get to the rim. And after playing the second-most minutes on the team through its first 33 games, in part because of season-ending injuries to Kalana Greene and Mel Thomas, there is that otherwise conveniently ignorable youth.
"You can't really anticipate or prepare for how long the college season is," Moore said before the Big East tournament. "It's very tough; it wears on your body, it wears on your mind. But coach is making it tough for us, and I think it's good because it's preparing us for the rest of the season."
If history is any indication, she'll pass this test the same way she has passed every one to date. That includes those tests that didn't involve a 2-3 defense or 30-plus minutes. Eyeing a communications major, she's also balancing basketball and books to the tune of a 3.85 grade-point average in her first semester.
"You just have to sacrifice the time," Moore said. "For me, it's time. I'm not one of those students who can just pay attention and then get an 'A' on the test. I have to listen and take notes and do my homework."
With six more semesters to go before she's done, odds aren't good opponents will be as successful with their homework.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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