Auriemma has high expectations for U.S.
Auriemma uses WNBA All-Star Weekend to prep national team for world championship
BRISTOL, Conn. -- Seven NCAA titles, 14 Big East tournament championships, a record 78-game win streak.
Yes, Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma is a winner. So it's not surprising that when he leads the U.S. women's senior national team against the WNBA All-Stars in Saturday's Stars at the Sun game (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET), he expects to come out on top.
"We're going to kill them," Auriemma said during a visit to ESPN's campus on Thursday. "If you take the top 24 WNBA players and I get to coach the 11 that I want, of course we're going to kill them."
Though the U.S. national team is missing recently retired Lisa Leslie on the roster, Auriemma's talented squad includes Sue Bird (Seattle Storm), Swin Cash (Seattle Storm), Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever), Tina Charles (Connecticut Sun), Candice Dupree (Phoenix Mercury), Sylvia Fowles (Chicago Sky), Angel McCoughtry (Atlanta Dream), Renee Montgomery (Connecticut Sun), Maya Moore (UConn), Cappie Pondexter (New York Liberty) and Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury). And while most all-star events give players the opportunity to kick back and have fun, Auriemma thinks this game is primed to pack its own little punch.
"I think there's going to be a different atmosphere," he said. " There may be some players on the WNBA All-Star team that are thinking, 'Why wasn't I considered for [the U.S.] team?'"
And why weren't they? Unlike the fan-elected WNBA All-Stars, the players who don a Team USA jersey are picked by Auriemma and a selection panel. A decision that Auriemma says is much more difficult in the women's game.
"Everybody wants to play for the women's USA basketball team," said Auriemma, who in April led the Huskies to their second consecutive undefeated college season. "It's not like the men's side where they have trouble dealing with agents and guys who don't want to play. These girls have done everything I've asked them to do since this process started."
Despite Team USA's enthusiasm, the squad still faces many challenges. This weekend is the only opportunity the group has to play as a full team before the world championship in September. With the WNBA playoffs coinciding with training camp, some players might not join the team in the Czech Republic until the day of the first game. In other words, Team USA's exhibition matches on Saturday (versus WNBA All-Stars) and Sunday (versus Australian national team) are incredibly important.
In a short amount of time, Auriemma wants to make sure that his players know how he wants the ball passed, where he wants players to move, what kind of shots to look for and how to execute his defensive strategies. Implementing specific plays might prove too difficult, but if he can instill some sort of general game plan that players can familiarize themselves with, it will go a long way toward improving their outlook for the FIBA championship.
More importantly, Auriemma wants his team to get comfortable playing together. Unlike their Australian foes (who are selected at a young age and developed together up through the Olympics), the U.S. players spend most of their time competing against each other. And when everyone on the floor is used to being the star of her WNBA franchise (or college team, in Moore's case), it takes some time to adjust.
Who better to whip them into shape than the man who takes top high school recruits and turns them into collegiate champions?
"Yeah," Auriemma smiled, "I'm good at that."
Indeed. Six of the 11 players on Saturday's U.S. squad are former Huskies, almost guaranteeing a solid crowd at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. While Charles, Montgomery and Moore are all recent or current members of UConn's basketball program, Bird, Cash and Taurasi have developed their professional games on a multitude of different teams. Auriemma catches WNBA games when he can, but says he'll have to revisit the way he coaches the players in order to better complement their new skill sets.
And, in a way, the U.S. women's national team is the UConn of international competition. The program is ranked No. 1 in the world by FIBA and boasts a 63-1 slate in major international contests, bringing home four consecutive gold medals (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008). The precedent is there, but the pressure is different.
"I've coached a lot of basketball and I don't think I've ever felt the kind of pressure that you feel when you're playing in any of the medal rounds. Much more so than any Final Four game I've coached in," Auriemma admitted. "You realize that they could play some other country's national anthem and you'd have to sit there and listen to it."
No flags will be raised at the Mohegan Sun on Saturday and Sunday, but you can bet that Auriemma will still feel the thousands of eyes watching him -- and still expects to win.
"At the press conference when I was named the head coach of the U.S. team, I remember thinking the whole time, 'Man, at UConn we never enter a game that we're not supposed to win.' Now, to get a break from that, I take over a team that's supposed to win every single game they play for the next three years."
What's it like never to be the underdog? Auriemma's sarcasm easily gives way to the confidence we all know so well.
"I kind of like it."
Kaitee Daley is an editor for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.