Paige Bueckers stood on the Amalie Arena floor in Tampa, Florida as USA Basketballâ€™s gold-medal winning 3x3 team from the 2018 Youth Olympic Games was introduced at the 2019 NCAA Final Four semifinals.
Off to the side, the UConn womenâ€™s basketball team - in a tight battle with Notre Dame - surrounded coach Geno Auriemma to listen to his instructions. Four days earlier, Bueckers made public her commitment to the Huskies. As she walked off, she stared into their huddle likely wishing that she could help. She couldnâ€™t and Notre Dame won.
Eighteen months later, the cavalry has arrived.
A six-player class has made it to Storrs as freshmen, led by No. 1 recruit Bueckers, and will make up the majority of UConnâ€™s roster for the first time in 32 years.
â€śWeâ€™re all really close as freshmen,â€ť Bueckers said. â€śI think that we do hold ourselves to a really high standard because we are a really young team and there is six of us. We donâ€™t want all of the weight on the upperclassmenâ€™s shoulders. We want to have their back. We donâ€™t want to be typical freshmen who donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on. Weâ€™re hard on each other but when one is down we pick them up in a positive way. Our closeness off the court has helped us on the court as well.â€ť
Debbie (Baer) Fiske knows the feeling.
The Huskiesâ€™ radio analyst came to UConn with five other freshmen, four from her native Pennsylvania, in 1988. At the time, plans for Gampel Pavilion were coming together but no championship banners were hanging in the Storrs Field House though the Huskies were coming off their first back-to-back winning seasons.
â€śOur team was two juniors, two sophomores, and six freshmen,â€ť Fiske said. â€śThe roster was in transition from the year before and we were going to add some fresh, new blood. What was important to us is that we bought into what the coaches said. I guess you could say that ignorance is bliss. But it took no time to see how much faster the pace was than high school and how much more demanding it was. Weâ€™d need their help.
â€śIt helped that we knew each other. We had that connection. When you come into a new situation like we did you rely so much on your instincts and you try to do the right things. So we tried to do what we were told. We were blue-collar kids who learned thatâ€™s what youâ€™re supposed to do. We didnâ€™t always do it but we wanted to get better and be successful. If we did what we were told, that would happen. And it did happen.â€ť
When they were done, they became the first UConn class to win 100 games in their career and were part of the first three Big East regular season titles and first two Big East Tournament crowns. They started the streak of what is now 31 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths and in 1991 they advanced to the programâ€™s first Final Four.
UConn has been to the Final Four 19 more times including the last 12 that have been held. There are so many conference championships they donâ€™t even get their own recognition anymore. A record 11 national championship banners do hang in the Gampel rafters.
Six of the 11 on the current Huskies roster - including Bueckers and classmate Mir McLean - were McDonaldâ€™s All-Americans. Three, including freshmen Nika Muhl and Aaliyah Edwards, are from outside the United States and have international experience. Rounding out the rookie class are Piath Gabriel and walk-on Autumn Chassion.
This isnâ€™t 1988 anymore. Coaching like itâ€™s 1988 wonâ€™t work anymore either.
â€śWe just had this discussion and the kids have admitted they have a shorter attention span,â€ť Auriemma said. â€śItâ€™s difficult for them to focus on some of the stuff that we coaches think are important. So we have them do things over and over and over and maybe thatâ€™s to compensate. At the same time weâ€™re able to get little details through by hammering them in over and over again.
â€śBut you see the competitive part of the freshmen come out when they actually play. So you adjust your coaching to reflect that. You realize that theyâ€™re still freshmen. They donâ€™t know what playing college basketball is all about. They want to play. They donâ€™t want to do things we coaches think are simple like making the easy pass to the guy thatâ€™s open. Setting a really good screen is a chore. But they want to run and play 5-on-5 and we get that. But we want these kids to have a certain skill level and they have to learn it if they want to be really good. So we do it over and over and the quicker they learn the quicker we can get going.â€ť
The Huskiesâ€™ freshman class is rated No. 2 nationally behind Oregonâ€™s. By now in many years weâ€™ve already heard Auriemma proclaim of many classes that if they are so highly regarded, how bad is everyone else?
The 2020 Group of 6 has impressed the Hall of Fame coach with their competitiveness and work ethic, even through the ups and down just about every freshman has.
Thatâ€™s not different than 32 years ago, but there are differences.
â€śWe didnâ€™t have any 6-foot-5 kids on the team in 1988,â€ť Auriemma said. â€śWe didnâ€™t have the kind of quickness and athleticism in 1988. What we have to do now is find what style works for us. Some years itâ€™s easy and other years itâ€™s not. Right now with this team they have more of a full-court mentality. They want to go. They want to run. The best way to describe it they want to play like theyâ€™re used to playing. They go up and down and do dangerous and ill-advised passes and itâ€™s like they all become (Philadelphia Eagles QB) Carson Wentz.
â€śBut they love the game. They love being in the gym and working on their game. We can work with that. I still tell them the things they have to do and remind them that theyâ€™re not exactly the finished product and theyâ€™ve got work to do. But I do like the way they go about things. I donâ€™t like it all of the time and Iâ€™m not saying itâ€™s ideal. But these freshmen are good to be around, all six of them.â€ť
For Fiske, trust is a must.
â€śThese freshmen are so much more talented than we ever were,â€ť Fiske said. â€śI think theyâ€™re going to be amazing and I canâ€™t wait to watch them. Thereâ€™s a reason that they all decided to come here and itâ€™s because they think this where theyâ€™ll be their best. The coaches have a history of bringing out the best in their players. But thereâ€™s something the players have to do for their coaches. They have to trust them.â€ť
Bueckers and Edwards could compete for starting jobs and they have the potential to be stars. Muhlâ€™s toughness and her will to succeed have earned her comparisons to former UConn All-American guard Jennifer Rizzotti. McLeanâ€™s athleticism has earned her comparisions to former All-American forward Gabby Williams. Gabriel adds much-needed size and Chassion adds depth.
The third-ranked Huskies are scheduled to open the season Nov. 28 against Quinnipiac in the Womenâ€™s Hall of Fame Challenge at Mohegan Sun Arena. A game with No. 6 Mississippi State could follow the next day and No. 5 Louisville will be at the casino Dec. 4. UConn starts its 20-game Big East schedule at Seton Hall two days later.
The freshmenâ€™s approach is the same as many of their predecessors.
â€śWe all hate losing, and itâ€™s just not games but every drill in practice,â€ť Bueckers said.
Sounds like theyâ€™re ready for action.