Geno Auriemma, UConn getting back up to speed as offseason workouts roll around

Coach Geno Auriemma and the UConn women's basketball team will begin conditioning next week.

Coach Geno Auriemma and the UConn women’s basketball team will begin conditioning next week.

Michael Conroy / Associated Press

Life’s starting to feel a bit more normal for UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma.

He can’t go anywhere on campus now without somebody wanting to stop him to chat.

“You can feel that there’s a difference in the air,” Auriemma said Wednesday during a media Zoom call. “People are a little more relaxed. There’s more of a looseness about engaging with other people.”

On top of that, Auriemma’s job — as he knows it — is beginning to ramp up again. The team’s offseason conditioning program starts Tuesday, the same day the NCAA-mandated “dead period” ends. In July, Auriemma and his staff will be on the road for the first time in over a year.

“I’m at work every day. Our whole staff is here,” Auriemma said, adding that a majority of the team is now fully vaccinated. “Last year it was, ‘What am I going to do today that I didn’t do yesterday?’ … The most exciting part of my day was what kind of wine am I having? Red or white? That was fun in the beginning, but that’s no way to live.”

Nearly the entire roster will be back in Storrs this weekend, with the exception of sophomore forward Aaliyah Edwards, who is in Florida training with the Canadian national team.

Auriemma sees the workouts as an opportunity to get his younger players up to speed — specifically incoming freshmen Amari DeBerry, Caroline Ducharme, and Morgan Wootten Player of the Year Azzi Fudd — without his full roster on hand.

In addition to not having Edwards, the Huskies will also be without Paige Bueckers (ankle) and Piath Gabriel (non-basketball related issue) following offseason surgeries. Both Bueckers, the national player of the year, and Gabriel are expected to be sidelined through the summer.

“This is a great opportunity for some of the younger kids,” Auriemma said, “some of the players that maybe wouldn’t get as many reps if Paige was here or if Aaliyah was here. … It’s an opportunity for us as well to see, ‘Hey, what will we look like if we didn’t have (Bueckers and Edwards) available.’ I’m looking at it as a positive.”

Auriemma will have 11 players in all, including sophomore Nika Muhl, who turned down the opportunity to practice with the Croatian national team.

The Huskies won 28 games, swept the Big East regular season and tournament championships, and were ranked No. 1 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll before losing to Arizona in the Final Four this past April. With all five starters returning, plus the additions of Fudd and Ohio State forward Dorka Juhasz, the Huskies will enter 2021-22 as a legitimate national championship contender, if not the favorite.

Auriemma said he’s anxious to see what his returning seniors — center Olivia Nelson-Ododa and guards Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams — learned from last season and how they can apply it moving forward.

“I would like to think that they feel like there’s some residue left over there and it’s not good for them,” Auriemma said. “They’ve got some unfinished business to take care of.”

While most players will return home following the summer session, Fudd and DeBerry plan to further their basketball education with the U.S. U19 World Cup team. The World Cup is slated for Aug. 7-19 in Debrecen, Hungary.

“It’s a great opportunity for any kid, one that you should never pass up unless you have specific reasons to,” Auriemma said. “I know that Paige is disappointed that she didn’t get to do her USA Basketball thing this summer, and I know that Amari is going to learn a lot … and the same with Azzi.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour