Anyone scanning SI’s preseason women’s top 10 will land upon one familiar name after another. There is South Carolina, the defending champs led by coach Dawn Staley and all-everything forward A’ja Wilson, the projected top pick in next spring’s WNBA draft. There are regular contenders Baylor and Notre Dame, the party-crashing defending runners-up from Mississippi State, the Final Four regulars from Stanford. And there, atop it all as is so often the case, is the team so accustomed to standing atop the sport at season’s end: UConn.
Except, of course, the Huskies finished last season in no such place. Upset by Mississippi State in a semifinal thriller, UConn’s streak of national championships was halted at four. And thus Geno Auriemma’s team enters this season in what is, preposterously, an unfamiliar position: notdefending champions.
Below, SI’s Richard Deitsch lays out his preseason top 10 and All-America team.
1. Connecticut: The Huskies add the nation’s top recruit (6' 1" wing Megan Walker) along with 6' 6" Duke transfer Azurá Stevens, who’s been compared to Kevin Durant both for the way she plays and for joining a superteam. UConn will not lose in 2017–18.
2. Stanford: The Cardinal, a surprise Final Four team a year ago, are solid and deep. Junior 6' 4" forward Alanna Smith and 6' 3" sophomore Nadia Fingall will form one of the best frontcourts in America.
3. Texas: Senior guards Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty make up the best backcourt outside Storrs. Big 12 freshman of the year Joyner Holmes, a 6' 3" forward out until December because of an undisclosed rules violation, has star potential.
4. Louisville: Coach Jeff Walz has his top two scorers back: junior guard Asia Durr (19.2 ppg) and senior forward Myisha Hines-Allen (13.9). Freshman Dana Evans headlines a top-five class.
5. Mississippi State: The national runners-up lack the depth of last season, but the team’s top three scorers return: senior wing Victoria Vivians, senior point guard Morgan William and 6' 7" junior center Teaira McCowan.
6. Ohio State: All-America senior guard Kelsey Mitchell, who has 2,553 total points as a collegian (24.5 ppg), needs 974 to break Kelsey Plum’s women’s Division I scoring record.
7. Notre Dame: Center Brianna Turner will miss the season because of a torn left ACL, so Stanford transfer Lili Thompson, a 5' 7" point guard, and junior scoring guards Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale must take the lead.
8. Baylor: Coach Kim Mulkey has a huge frontcourt, featuring 6' 7" junior center Kalani Brown and 6' 4" sophomore forward Lauren Cox.
9. Duke: The Blue Devils are led by the senior backcourt of Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell, who combined to average 34.7 ppg last season.
10. South Carolina: Final Four MOP A’ja Wilson is back for her senior season, but the defending champs lost a combined 40.8 ppg.
2017 Preseason All-America Team
C: A’ja Wilson, Senior, South Carolina
F: Napheesa Collier, Junior, UConn
F: Gabby Williams, Senior, UConn
G: Katie Lou Samuelson, Junior, UConn
G: Kelsey Mitchell, Senior, Ohio State
Coach of the Year: Geno Auriemma, UConn
Freshman of the Year: Evina Westbrook, guard, Tennessee
Just before the Huskies began their first official practices this October, Auriemma sat down with SI to revisit the instant classic that ended last season (his team’s first defeat in 111 games), the freedom of starting a new season from scratch and how a title-or-bust mindset is no way to live.
Dan Greene: You bring back three All-Americans from last season (Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collins, and Gabby Williams) and are adding Azurá Stevens, a versatile 6’ 5” forward who was All-ACC at Duke. There’s a perception among some people that this team might be your most talented in years.
Geno Auriemma: I always hesitate to try to think about where any team would compare or stack up to any team previous to that. So I’m sure when we had that team with Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley and Kaleena Lewis and Stewie [Breanna Stewart] and Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson, everybody went, Wow, that’s an amazing team. And at the time I thought, yeah, we got some issues we gotta work through. Now if you look at our team this year somebody would say when you look at the three All-Americans coming back and who you’re adding, Wow, this could be—and I go, nah, they would have a long way to go to get to that team, because that team just had so many parts. So I think you always look back and tend to remember the best parts of other teams and you always look at the team you have and think, Aw, jeez we gotta fix that, we gotta fix that.
DG: So how do you feel about this team entering the season?
GA: I certainly don’t feel as unsure as I did last year at this time [when I was] unsure of how we’re gonna react to not having those three All-Americans from the year before. And we reacted at a way higher level than even I expected us to. Now this year I’m expecting us to be at that real high level right from the beginning. How good we are? I don’t know. I thought last year felt like they had something to prove, because of everybody talking about who we didn’t have. No Stewie, no Tuck, no Moriah, woo woo woo. And they felt like they had something to prove. We talked about that a lot: stop talking about who we don’t have. Let’s focus on what we do have. We have a lot. And now everybody’s gonna talk about, Wow, you guys have a lot. O.K. So how are we gonna shift gears then and go from we got something to prove to now we have something to accomplish? That’s gonna be the challenge.
DG: Is it different beginning a year coming off not winning a championship?
GA: I don’t know. It’s been a while. [Laughs] Is it different? You know, after that loss in the Final Four, if we could’ve played a week later we probably could’ve beat anybody, because that look in their eye, that feeling, that I wanna get this taste of my mouth. But as time goes by, that maybe goes away. So I’m anxious to see as the season goes on, how much does not winning in Dallas stay with us? How much does that motivate us? And should it? I dunno. But it’s the first time that we’ve had a team in a while that isn’t carrying any of last year’s stuff with them in some ways. The streak, the wins in a row, the national championships in a row, that connection to those other teams that came before you because they were part of the streak. So none of that exists right now. And I think for the first time, they’re gonna be in that position. We’re like everybody else—except South Carolina. And I think that’s good.
DG: So it’s liberating to no longer have the winning streak?
GA: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I was talking to one of my friends and he said to me, ‘I ran into you after the game in Dallas late at night and I didn’t know how to approach you. I didn’t know what to say. But when I saw you we started talking and you were calm and O.K., no problems.’ And I said, yeah, because it didn’t take me long to realize right after that game, wow, this is the best thing that could’ve happened to us. Once you get past the disappointment of losing, once you get beyond that, you really start to look at it as: we really needed this more than we needed that win. Because this is something that regenerates us. There has to come a point where you have to start over. That’s how life is. We were defying the laws of nature there for a while. And now we’re somewhat normal. That’s a good feeling. No one will ask us the first week of practice about the streak. And no one will ask us next week and the week after that and the week after that. All the attention that we were gathering as the season went on and we got closer and closer to winning 100 in a row—none of that will be there. And that’s good. People who haven’t been there might say, ‘Oh I wish I was there.’ Good. I hope you get there too. And then you’ll wish you weren’t there. Trust me when I tell you that.
DG: How much of an effect did it have?
GA: I never wanted the kids to use it as an excuse for anything. But it’s natural. It’s certainly not the reason we lost. It’s certainly not the reason we didn’t play great that night. But you can’t go through what this group of coaches and players have gone through and think that it has no effect on you. Of course it does. You might not know it, but it does.
DG: Losses can be used as a learning tool for coaches. Fortunately you don’t get that opportunity very often here. Is there anything you’ve tried to draw from that Mississippi State loss?
GA: I still think there’s a lot to be said that the one thing losing teaches you is how to lose. If you start to experience that a little too much, you start to get comfortable with losing, and feel like, O.K., this doesn’t hurt so bad. I certainly would never wanna be in that situation. But this is more of a reminder. And everybody needs a reminder once in a while. And it’s a reminder that should happen more often, quite frankly. Because the world we have created for our players, that’s not the real world. The real world isn’t where some teams you’re playing lose more games in a week than you lose in your entire college career. Who lives in that world? It’s not normal. It’s not normal to go through your junior year not having lost a game. It’s not normal. Then it makes it as if you’re the only team playing and every game’s an exhibition and you’re the Globetrotters playing against the Washington Generals—even they won once in a while. It was a good reminder that hey, this does happen in sports. You might not have experienced it, but this is what every other kid who plays sports in America experiences. Some more than others. And you’re gonna realize it doesn’t kill you—unless you want it to.
DG: Last season, as the winning streak was building, you would reference some vulnerabilities that people watching weren’t necessarily noticing. What were you seeing?
GA: One of the reasons we put together the schedule that we put together was, in my mind, we had a lot of shortcomings that on the outside someone looking at it would say, ‘No they don’t.’ But if you’re around it, if you’re here everyday, you would say, well, we just lost the first, second, and third picks in the [WNBA] draft. They were all seniors. They’d all been here for four years. They did all of the work. They did all the thinking, all the emotion, all the maturity. They were the ones that brought everything to this other group. That’s not right or wrong. It’s just what it was. So this other group that we were starting the season with last year, they had to do nothing the year before except just show up and do their part and play. And if you play great, great. If you don’t, don’t worry, we got this. So that’s what it became. Now all of a sudden we’re going into last season at the beginning with all these question marks and it didn’t matter that we were winning. Those question marks are always gonna be there. Are we mature enough? No. We weren’t. How did you see it? Not always on the court, when you watch us. We saw it everyday in practice. Are we good enough to handle certain situations? Well, it looks like you are, you won 100-whatever in a row. Yeah, come to practice, and I’ll show you how many situations this team can’t deal with, where if they come up, we’re dead. Everyday.
Most teams that I’ve had, when we go over that stuff, boom! That’s why, the year before, when Stewie and those guys were there, I would say there isn’t anything that could possibly come up short of season-ending injury that’s gonna change this. I never felt that way last year. And no matter how much I said it, people said, 'ah, you’re crazy.' I wasn’t crazy. It’s a miracle that we kept it from happening for so long.
DG: Because you didn’t find yourself in those situations—
GA: Or when we did, the other team wasn’t good enough to take advantage of it. Or we made a big play to bail us out. For instance, the very first game of the year, against Florida State. They’ve got the last shot and Napheesa blocks the kid’s shot. Well. Mississippi State, the kid’s got the last shot. Gabby just missed blocking that, by an inch. O.K., well, it should’ve never come down to that. If we had made those free throws that we missed, it wouldn’t have come down to that. If we had handled that out of bounds situation better, it wouldn’t have come down to that. If we hadn’t gotten down 16—when was the last time we were down 16? I don’t remember. So why’d it happen that night? Because we were not mature enough to handle all the stuff that was happening to us. Yeah, we’ve been in big games, we’ve been in incredibly pressured situations. Not the Final Four. Not this group. Not when they looked around and said, ‘Just throw it to Stewie.’ I said that during the timeout one time [against Mississippi State], ‘Don’t worry, next possession we’re gonna have Moriah come down and throw it to Stewie. Uh, no we’re not. One of you guys is gonna have to make a play.’
DG: How’d they react to that?
GA: Well, we went out there and outscored them by 21. We went from down 16 to up 5. But even then, I think you could see we just didn’t—You know, I took it as, it’s unbelievable. It made that streak even bigger than what it was—how could this not happen for so many games? For so long?—when you see how easy it could happen.
DG: As the game went on, could you sense it was going to come down to one of those situations?
GA: Oh yeah. You could see that this is not gonna be one of those where we just went up five and by the next timeout we’re gonna be up 15. That’s not gonna happen. Now, had it happened, if we’d have gone from 5 to 12 or 15, the game would’ve been over. Our guys would’ve been like ‘oh, this is like every other game.’ But I knew this is not gonna be—and sure enough, they came out and [snaps fingers]. I think our guys were like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you know? Just keep riding and try not to look back. Who are these guys? Just can’t shake ‘em. And we couldn’t shake ‘em. It just caught up to us.
DG: Going to overtime, did it feel like your backs were to the wall? It’s a fairly unfamiliar place.
GA: I think being in overtime was more of ‘We got a break here. Now we can start over and it’s just five minutes.’ And we could put away all the dumb stuff that’s happened in the previous 40 and just concentrate on these five. It was funny, last week our coaches got together and it was the first time I’ve watched the game. First time I’ve watched the whole game. The one thing that I noticed that wasn’t as evident during the game was how tired we looked—the whole game, but especially in overtime. Some of our guys had played 40 minutes. We couldn’t function the way we normally would. And when it came down to making those free throws, we just didn’t have it. Getting a stop—normally for us, that kid would’ve missed the shot. Normally for us those free throws go in and we win. I remember Kia Nurse, two wide-open threes, normally they go in. Why? They were big threes in big moments. Normally they go in. They didn’t. For all the times that they do go in and you accept it as, ‘Yeah, we got this,’ you gotta accept it’s gonna go the other way sometimes too.
DG: A lot made was made of your smile after it went in. Where did that come from?
GA: Part of it is they had been talking about [Morgan William] forever during the tournament, about what kind of tournament she was having. When somebody gets on a roll like that, it’s almost like, of course it’s gonna happen. I’ve seen it happen with our guys, whether it was Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier, where they come out of nowhere and just take over the tournament. When I saw that kid with the ball and she got away from one of our guys and went up for the last shot, it was almost like, of course this is going in. How could it not? That’s why when it went in—it was partly that and partly the crowd reaction. I immediately thought, ‘Wow, do you know how many people are happy that we lost? This is incredible. This is like the best thing to happen to women’s basketball. A lot of people are the happiest they’ve been in a long time about a Final Four.’ Afterward, when I thought back to that, I thought, unfortunately, five years from now, you’re gonna say, Hey what happened in the Final Four in Dallas? ‘Connecticut lost.’ To who? ‘I think it was Mississippi State, I’m not sure.’ It’s almost like when Tiger was playing at the top of his game and the headline would be TIGER COMES IN THIRD and then underneath it real small, ‘so-and-so won the tournament.’ It’s not necessarily a great place to be.
SI: You kind of come to define the sport.
GA: Yeah, which, don’t get me wrong, I think we’ve done a lot to do that. We brought the game to a great place whether people wanna admit it or not. Whether people love us or don’t love us, we’ve taken the game to a place where it’s never been. We can’t shy away from that. It is what it is. We created it. It’s not like somebody said, we’re forcing you to do this.
SI: So you hadn’t watched the Mississippi State game, but had you watched the final play at all before last week?
GA: No. Just didn’t feel like it. It wasn’t like a conscious effort—‘I’m not watching that!’ I could probably say of all the four national championships before that, I don’t know if I watched any of those front to back. I could care less. I’m on to the next thing. Then when I watched it the other day with the coaches, I stormed out of the room. I was like, ‘I can’t watch this.’ I mean, I came back. Just different parts, looking at it like, what the hell! I walk out the door. They would unfortunately hit pause and wait for me to come back instead of keep going. But yeah, sometimes it’s more painful the second time.
SI: What did you tell the team after the game?
GA: I think we win more than most people, but the way we handle it, I think we handle it in a way that people respect. So now, I want people to respect the way we lose. And I told them, this is what you get when you don’t deserve to win. And we’ve always felt like you have to deserve to win. You can’t, like, hope to win and hope the other team loses. You have to deserve it. You have to do the things that you’re supposed to do and you have to deserve it. And we didn’t.
The next day, when we talked about it in private, it was more about asking players their personal feelings about what happened. What do they think? The natural instinct is: This game is gonna define my season. That’s easy to do. And that’s a shame. We talked a lot about that, that we’re in a situation where, what, we can’t celebrate anything if we don’t win the national championship? So all that stuff that we did from October to April means nothing because we lost tonight? If that’s the way we’re gonna have to do it, if that’s the life that you’re gonna live at Connecticut, then you know what, I don’t think that’s a life that I wanna be a part of. So we have to make sure we always remind our players of that. Yeah, it’s not gonna be something that right away they go, ‘You’re right, Coach, let’s go out and have a beer.’ No. But I want them to at some point understand that there’s a lot that goes into a season other than the last game. ‘Well, if we win the last game it was a great year.’ Then that means—I’ve been here 32 years. We’ve had 11 great years and 21 lousy years? I don’t know that that’s a happy way to live your life.
SI: Is it something you bring up with the team now?
GA: Not really. I don’t know if there’s much that needs to be talked about. Again, if I don’t want them to base all of last season on one game, I don’t wanna reinforce the opposite of that. They know what happened. I learned a long time ago: Don’t talk about winning a national championship and don’t talk about what happened last year. Every kid that comes here knows that the national championship is the ultimate goal. They don’t have to be reminded of it everyday. That’s why they’re here. What happened last season, they know it. And I might subtly jab a couple of them every now and then. But in terms of the team, no, probably not. I might remind some of the younger guys that didn’t play last year, the new guys, you know, we went to the Final Four last year without any of you guys. We can do that again if you don’t get your ass in gear. You know that. That probably has a better chance of happening than the other part.
SI: With that year under their belts now, do you feel the veterans are in the kind of place your leaders were two years ago?
GA: Umm, that remains to be seen. That’s what I’m looking to find out. That’s the big unknown for me right now. How will our seniors lead? And are they leaders? We have four freshmen this year and two kids that didn’t play [last season as transfers]. So we have six and six. How’s that gonna work? I wanna find out. I wanna see. So far, I like where they’re going.