- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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HARTFORD, Conn. -- The other George Bush occupied the White House the last time a group of seniors played their final game for the University of Connecticut women's basketball team without ever having participated in a Final Four. On paper, this year's team appears to have the depth and talent to avoid sending the current quartet of seniors out the same way. But in terms of translating printed potential into real success, the second-ranked Huskies might end up wanting to take a page from a freshman.>
Only the second player ever to win back-to-back Naismith Awards as the nation's top female prep player, following in Candace Parker's footsteps, it takes a little while to catalog all of Maya Moore's accolades. It takes much less time to see why there is so much to list.
Filling an average freshman's page in the team media guide is a task akin to padding a comparative literature paper through a mastery of the fine arts of spacing and fonts. Even Huskies newcomer Lorin Dixon, a McDonald's All-American and Miss Basketball in New York who had as strong a résumé as almost any recruit in the country, merits just 290 words in this year's Connecticut media guide.
Moore is not an average freshman, or even, as in Dixon's case, merely an exceptional freshman. The top prize in last year's recruiting class, her bio and prep achievements span more than 400 words in the media guide, squeezed onto the single page usually awarded freshmen by use of a font small enough to make stock-quote aficionados squint. And that doesn't even include the standard Q&A about her favorite movies, books and cuisines (soul food and Italian food, the latter a wise choice considering she's playing for a man recently inducted into the Italian-American Hall of Fame).
An agile 6-footer, Moore impresses as much by how she does things on the court as for the result of doing them. Players don't get style points based on how the ball gets through the hoop, but it's not just the artistic flair that's impressive when you watch Moore fill the middle of the lane in transition, slow her momentum in an instant -- kicking her airborne legs wide to the same effect as a spoiler on a stock car -- and gently roll the ball off her fingertips and over the rim. Like Tamika Catchings, one of her role models, the individual moves are instinct and intuition -- but the sum total is effort and energy.
It's not just snapshots from a meaningless exhibition game against an overmatched opponent that point to where Moore's game is relative to her age. On the United States team that won gold in the FIBA Under-19 World Championship in Slovakia this summer, Moore led the way in scoring, free-throw shooting and steals and ranked third in rebounds, assists and blocks on a roster that included potential college stars like Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh (Tennessee), Jantel Lavender (Ohio State), Italee Lucas (North Carolina), Jasmine Thomas and Krystal Thomas (Duke) and Kayla Pedersen (Stanford).
She's equally polished and mature off the court, completely at ease as she sat on a folding chair and iced her knees, almost completely hidden from view by a circle of reporters after Tuesday's exhibition game against reigning Division II national champion Southern Connecticut State. Later, after the sizable media horde that follows the Huskies on a daily basis moved on to Auriemma's press conference, Moore stood alone in the cavernous hallway beneath the Hartford Civic Center and reflected on how much she wants to enjoy each first that comes along –- Tuesday's game had been her first at the arena that is Connecticut's second home after Gampel Pavilion on campus.
When she talked about settling in at one of college basketball's premier programs, and playing for one of its most demanding coaches, she sounded more like a WNBA veteran a decade her senior than an awestruck freshman.
"I expected [coach Auriemma] to be hard on us and speak his mind and tell us what we need to hear," Moore said. "It's a different side -– being coached by him is going to be different than being recruited, just the fact that he's getting on you more. I think I've handled it well, because I realize where he's coming from. It's not always what I want to hear, but it's great."
All of which makes it that much more remarkable that it raised no eyebrows when Auriemma brought Moore off the bench in exhibitions against Team USA and Southern Connecticut. She might be the future of the program, but the present still includes all five starters from the team that won the Big East regular-season title and reached a regional final last season.
Putting aside point guard and center, although it's not inconceivable that the freshman could play both positions in a pinch, starting Moore would mean sitting Kalana Greene, Charde Houston or Mel Thomas. Greene remains one of the most underrated finishers in the country and is arguably the best all-around player on the roster after averaging 12.4 points and 7.5 rebounds last season. Houston, for all her ups and downs during a tumultuous first three seasons in Storrs, enters her final season 25th on Connecticut's all-time scoring list and shot 54 percent from the field last season. And Thomas enters her final season as one of the program's all-time most prolific 3-point shooters -- on a current roster that combined to hit 14 fewer 3-pointers last season than she did by herself.
So as much as defenses will have to adjust to her this season, Moore is doing some adjustment of her own in a setting where she doesn't have to shoulder the load.
"There is a difference," Moore conceded of playing alongside so much talent. "In high school and AAU, I think my roles were a little easier to figure out, because there is going to be a certain talent drop-off. But here, there is no talent drop-off. Everyone is talented and everyone was the best where they came from. My endurance, my mental endurance, has to be even better because one day I may be on, one day it may be harder to get on because of the talent level."
Whether her name is announced as a starter during pregame introductions or from the scorer's table early in the first half, Moore should spend as much time on the court as anyone on the team this season. The wing might be her long-term home, especially as her outside shot continues to evolve, but her ability to play anywhere on the court gives Auriemma more flexibility than he had last year.
"That's something I really purposely work on, as far as my game, is being versatile, being able to go inside and out," Moore said. "I played the post mainly in high school, but during the summer I tried to get on the wing, just to get my overall game to where I want it to be. At this level, I think being inside is going to be a lot more physical and it's going to be harder, but I'm going to do my best to stay strong. I'm working hard in the weight room, so I can hold my own inside."
That should be music to Auriemma's ears. The Huskies averaged 10 more rebounds per game than their opponents last season, but they were beaten on the boards in each of their last two games -- a 78-71 win against NC State and a disastrous 73-50 loss against LSU in the Elite Eight.
"I've never coached a great team that wasn't great inside," Auriemma said. "It doesn't have to be points in the paint. [On the 2004 national championship team], if we needed points in the paint, we used to put Diana at the forward spot. So I think you have to have the ability to -- you have to remember, only if you have someone like Diana Taurasi can you get outrebounded by 20 in the national championship game and win the game, like we did against Tennessee in Atlanta. So right now, I'm not counting on someone emerging to be the next Diana Taurasi; I'm counting on our big guys getting better."
Next to foliage, the arrival of someone touted as the next great Huskies star is as good a sign as any that late fall has settled over New England. Last year it was Tina Charles and next year it will be Elena DelleDonne joining a lineage that spans from Kerry Bascom and Rebecca Lobo through Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Diana Taurasi. England has its Windsor lineage; New England has its Auriemma lineage.
But to Moore, her arrival is less about the past than the present.
"I try not to look that far ahead right now," Moore said. "I definitely realize this is the first year, hopefully, of four great ones to come, but I'm just trying to focus on this year right now and just getting better each practice and each game. But it is exciting to know I have a chance to make a legacy here."
That legacy starts now, no matter when Moore does.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
15dBonnie D. Ford