How UConn basketball coaches Dan Hurley, Geno Auriemma navigate challenging seasons: 'How do you explain it?'

STORRS — UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma shrugged his shoulders and shook his head and then exhaled forcefully through fluttering lips, summing up a somewhat helpless feeling under the clouds that gathered without warning over Gampel Pavilion. He chuckled at one point, too, an ironic type of laughter that comes when nothing is funny but a situation is beyond one’s control. 

"What can I say?" he asked rhetorically.  

Auriemma was sitting in the front row of seats, beyond one of the baselines, not far from the spot where several weeks ago he spoke gleefully of UConn having regained its reputation as basketball capital of the world.

His team in early December was cruising and his best player, Azzi Fudd, was looking like a national player of the year candidate. Meanwhile, the men’s team, seemingly freed from the prolonged struggles that Dan Hurley was hired to end, was undefeated and skyrocketing toward a No. 2 national ranking.

But the holiday season and the New Year have not been as kind to either UConn team. Auriemma’s women have been hit, yet again, with a wave of injuries that teams can’t prepare for and hope to dodge, and Hurley’s men are now white-knuckling through a season that was once a joy ride.

Through this hairpin turn, out of such ease and prosperity, the Huskies have run into their own respective quagmires. The women, with another Fudd knee injury the latest added to a ridiculous list, are patching together lineups and practice plans. The men’s 14-0 start was followed by five losses in six games, the team looking lost in every way.

No matter how successful any seasons are shaping up or built to be, one never knows what’s right around the corner.  

“That's one thing you learn if you’re in this business long enough,” said Auriemma, in his 38th season at UConn. “You do learn, you’ve just got to be willing to go on to the next thing, with whatever you have. It's almost become like golf. You'd play five days a week if you could and all five days you think you swing the same, but the ball goes five different directions and you can't understand why, and you've just got to figure out how to play with what I have today. This has become, ‘What do we have today? Who's at practice today? What do we need to get done? Who's available for tomorrow's game? How do we win tomorrow's game?’”

The women did win their next game, 79-39 over Butler Saturday afternoon at Gampel, and the Huskies’ winning streak is at 10. But with players coming and going, and Auriemma’s own departures to address the physical and emotional stress he faced in the wake of his mother’s passing, this has been an incredibly trying leg.

The men’s team, as Auriemma spoke Saturday, was across the street at the Werth Champions Center, with Hurley leading his first practice after missing most of the week with COVID-19. The Huskies were coming off a crushing loss that Hurley watched from home, 67-66 at Seton Hall, a game the team led for all but eight seconds. UConn ended a three-game losing streak Sunday with an 86-56 victory over lowly Butler but had already fallen to No. 15 in the nation.

And the situation had grown exceedingly uncomfortable.  

“You feel like you're not going to win a game again,” Hurley said in his postgame press conference. “You could see it all over. When I got back into practice, it looked like dogs at an animal shelter. Guys were beat up. It was a little scary going in there and seeing what the collective group looked like, and their energy level.”

The men’s team, prior to Sunday’s smothering of Butler, had faltered in areas it takes the most pride in, defense and toughness, not to mention some significant limitations on offense. UConn had been exposed, again, in a number of ways Wednesday night in the second half at Seton Hall, this time under the watch of assistants Luke Murray and Tom Moore. Associate head coach Kimani Young also missed the game due to COVID.

“When you get back to where we took this thing back to where we were on the verge of being the No. 1 team in the country and had to settle for 2, I just think there's a certain pressure that comes with that,” Hurley said. “And then a mindset of, you better continue to get better even when you're at that level. I think as a coaching staff we just failed — I failed — these guys in terms of trying to do things to try to take the pressure off of them, and then the other failure was not forcing us to continue to improve.”

The men and the women can feel good today about what took place over the weekend. Still, six weeks shy of the postseason one team continues to deal with something out of its control and the other has shown it is prone to falling apart tactically and emotionally. This is not how it was supposed to be. This is not how it was.

In the wake of both teams’ victories in Phil Knight events out in Oregon, and as November became December, there was all sorts of talk of the women being on their traditional track and the men regaining realistic national championship aspirations that once existed at the outset of so many seasons.

Now? Wow. Something bizarre has taken hold.

“You feel like you're on a wave of just going up, incline, but then you hit something and you're just declining again,” junior forward Aaliyah Edwards said.

One of the questions asked of Edwards Friday was who among UConn’s two injured stars, Paige Bueckers an Fudd, was the better coach? All either can do — Bueckers for the season, Fudd for the foreseeable future — is advise and cheer on teammates.

“So much for having two generational players,” Auriemma said.

Bueckers and Fudd have only played in the same game 15 times (out of a possible 55).

The men host first-place Xavier Wednesday at Gampel Pavilion, have next weekend off and the schedule softens a bit from there. The teeth of the Big East slate chewed them up, a period of vulnerability replacing a period of invincibility.

“I think most of us had our confidence still high, knowing what we’d done before,” forward Alex Karaban said. “I think most of us still had it, and it’s really starting to show now.”

Hurley had not publicly assessed his team since Jan. 15, after a miserable loss to St. John’s for which on Sunday he still lacked an explanation. He chose not to meet the media Saturday in advance of the Butler game, which is unusual.  

Auriemma has remained in good spirits, looking and sounding more like his usual self than he has in a while. He spoke for nearly a half-hour Friday and even danced on the sideline down the stretch of Sunday’s victory, after which he praised this team for having to overcome more than any other in his 38 years.

The death of his mother on Dec. 8 pushed Auriemma to a dark place. He returned from two breaks trying to wrangle issues that preceded his departure, issues that aren’t easy to process no matter how long they exist.

As he spoke Friday, Fudd was on one end of the court, on crutches and wearing a knee brace. Down at the other end, Caroline Ducharme sat alone on the bench, looking rather sad, as practice warmups were underway. Ducharme remains out due to concussion protocol. No timeline for Fudd’s recovery has been provided, though Auriemma said the first stage is for her to bear no weight on the injured knee for two weeks.

“There's more precautions taken now to prevent injuries than ever in the history of college basketball,” Auriemma said. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, none of this was going on. All this day-to-day, all these exercises, all these physiologists who can tell you how much pressure is on the fifth metatarsal when you make this cut. They can tell you anything — how to jump, how to land. They have ever data you can imagine. We used to just go by, what did it look like. … We're doing more for players than we've ever done in the history of the game. So how do you explain it?”

Another rhetorical question.

And then the conversation shifted to other sports. Football and Auriemma’s beloved Eagles. And baseball — all these Tommy John surgeries in recent years to repair torn ligaments. Auriemma and others in the courtside group started talking about pitchers like Bob Gibson and Catfish Hunter, who had more complete games in a single seasons than most pitchers nowadays wind up with in their careers. 

“But they didn't train like these guys train,” Auriemma said. “Maybe players today should train on Budweiser and cheeseburgers. Maybe they should have a cigarette during the seventh-inning stretch. All this Gatorade. All these supplements. Electrolytes …”  

“Give me a Bud Light,” he joked. “Maybe all this day to day stuff you have is counterproductive. I don't know. But I think, back then, people took time off, too. They didn't have personal trainers. They didn't have their own gym to work out in every day during the summer. They took time off. But they were ready to go when they came back.”

The men’s team was bound to feel college basketball’s gravity, eventually. The Big East is a bear. And, nationally, ranked teams have had a rough go of it lately. But at the end of the latest week of work, Hurley could walk away reasonably satisfied with a step back in the right direction.

“We know we don’t suck,” Hurley said. “We know we’re really good. We just didn't handle the pressure well and we didn't keep improving. Now I think we're in a much more comfortable spot, where our back is against the wall.”