Voices from the past have been echoing through the back hallways of Gampel Pavilion.
In a year that began with more questions than answers and more expectations than experience, they first appeared as infrequent whispers, wafting imperceptibly through the banners that once hung from the rafters.
As the season progressed, they slowly increased in regularity and intensity while guardedly making their way first down to mid-court, and then rising up through the stands, swirling around the "Huskies of Honor," and out through the Public Broadcasting airwaves, occasionally sparking a hazy recollection here, a vague remembrance there, mere glimpses that could not really be quantified or identified with any degree of certainty.
The conference season commenced and the murmurs continued to strengthen and soon became heard beyond the limits of campus and the boundaries of Connecticut, resembling an escalating cyclone reborn at the very center of the women's basketball universe.
They finally revealed themselves in a manner so plainly obvious that even the most casual basketball observer could not help but to stand and applaud in euphoric recognition.
The voices have spoken.
Basketball, UConn style, has returned to Storrs.
This manifestation came in the form of a play so reminiscent of gloried years and storied teams that head coach Geno Auriemma actually jumped in the air and pumped his arm in pure adulation. This, coming from a man who has spent most of the season trying to keep from burying his head in his hands while on the bench in the frustration of coaching a young team and has very few reasons to jump for joy in the past couple of years.
Charde Houston had just missed the second of two free throws, after being fouled by Louisville's Jazz Covington early in the second half at Gampel. As the ball bounced toward the UConn bench, Mel Thomas came out of nowhere, diving at full speed into the feet of her scattering teammates, tipping the ball away from Louisville and to her teammate Houston. Charde, immediately triple-teamed, spun and somehow found the now upright and recovered Thomas open in the corner for another of her patented quick release three-pointers.
"Everybody rallied around her, and then we had enough sense to find her and she had enough sense to knock the dang thing in," beamed Auriemma after the game, the excitement of the play still evident. "If we could make 15 plays like that every game, I could die and go to heaven. Those are the kinds of things that you love to see, because those things take a little bit of thought and a little bit of heart and a little bit of skill, some grit, some intelligence.
"To me, that's basketball."
But does the coach think that we are seeing "Old School" UConn basketball?
"That pretty much typifies what Connecticut basketball used to be: When Mel dived, saved the ball, kicked it out -- a ball that we had no shot to get or to save -- and it goes back to her and she makes the three. We made a point to say it on the bench -- those are the kinds of plays that make Connecticut famous. Those are the kinds of things that got us on television all of those games, and it's nice to see that."
It could not come at a better time for the Huskies, who have just completed the toughest portion of their schedule, having played five Top 30 teams -- at No.16 Marquette, No. 22 Rutgers, at No. 7 LSU, No. 16 Louisville and No. 28 Pittsburgh -- as well as a game at USF, which is tied for forth in the Big East, during the month of February. UConn won them all, extending its winning streak to 11, remaining unbeaten in the Big East, and moving up to No. 3 in the polls.
"We won some really good games against some really good teams in this stretch, home and away -- you're only as good as your next game," explained the Hall of Fame coach. "But, at the same time, I also know that they put a lot of effort and a lot of themselves into the stretch, because they knew, going in, that this could be the decisive stretch that could determine who's going to win the league. I don't think that we're finished yet. I don't think that we're anywhere near the point where we could look back and say, ‘Wow, that was pretty good.'"
There Is No 'I' in Team
If there's a difference with this UConn team and those great teams of old, it may be the lack of an instantly identifiable superstar. A true blending of many outstanding talents, no one player has jumped out to be the 2007 edition of Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird or Diana Taurasi.
"Being undefeated, to this point [in the Big East] means a lot, because of this group," continued Auriemma. "There's not a Player of the Year, there's not an All-American, probably, so for them to do it, it's a little bit more of a team award."
Indeed, five other UConn women's teams have gone undefeated in the regular season:1995, 1997, 2000, 2002 and 2003. "But in every one of those years, we had a ton of All-Americans on those teams," points out Auriemma. "And the league was a little bit less than it is today. So now today, you add the fact that we don't have All-Americans, it's a tougher league, and they're undefeated, that's pretty good for this group. Maybe there's more out there, maybe there's more to come."
The aforementioned lack of at least one "superstar" does differentiate this UConn team from those of the past, particularly those that went undefeated in the conference, featuring National Players of the Year Rebecca Lobo (1995), Jennifer Rizzotti (1996), Kara Wolters (1997), Sue Bird (2002) and Diana Taurasi (2003 & 2004), as well as All-Americans Nykesha Sales (1997), Svetlana Abrosimova (1999, 2000 & 2001), Shea Ralph (2000) and Swin Cash (2002). But the lack of individual hype very well could end up as this team's greatest strength.
"God forbid, if we were to win out, we could actually win this thing -- go undefeated -- and not have a player be first-team All-Big East and not have the Big East Player of the Year," says Auriemma. "I don't think that has ever happened before. And it goes to show, what I said to the kids after the game and what I said at the beginning of the season -- the star of our team is our team."
As evidence, UConn has, for only the third time in recent history, five players averaging double figures in scoring. In 1994-1995, it was Elliott, Sales, Rizzotti, Wolters & Lobo and in 2001-2002, it was Williams, Jones, Bird, Taurasi & Cash averaging in double figures. This season, it's the five starters, Greene, Montgomery, Charles, Houston and Thomas, scoring in double figures. All have led the team in scoring -- Montgomery and Thomas five times, Houston and Greene six times and Charles seven times -- and all have scored at least 20 points in a league game.
It's the Little Things
Auriemma has even noted improvement in some of the least obvious aspects of the game.
"Our plays after timeouts were exceptional today.," he explained. "And you ask, ‘Why do you say that?' Because we actually tried to do the things that we talked about -- and you don't know how big that is. Do you think I'm kidding? Back in the day, we used to take that for granted, and now, I'm celebrating. We ran two or three things out of timeouts that went perfectly -- exactly like we talked about. Unheard of."
This post-Taurasi period at UConn has made for a difficult transition for everyone involved -- coaches, players and fans alike. After three consecutive national championships in 2002, 2003 and 2004, the losses to Stanford and Duke in the past two NCAA tournaments seemed particularly cruel. And without winning the Big East regular season crown for the past two seasons after winning or sharing the previous 11, even the most loyal UConn fans have felt the void, even though the Huskies have won the past two Big East Tournaments.
But it may be different this year. This team needs to beat last place Villanova at home and to win at Rutgers to finish conference play without a loss. And with typical aplomb, Auriemma is able to put the programs recent so-called ‘woes' in perfect perspective with is trademark sardonic wit.
"The juniors deserve it, because they've been through a lot here," says Auriemma. "The two years, they had to suffer through 25 wins and 32 wins, and just feel miserable. Who would have thought that they'd go to college and only win 25 and only win 32 in their first two years and win two Big East Tournament Championships? Nobody deserves a fate like that..."
Is there a chance that this could be another one of those special years?
"Between now and the first round of the NCAA tournament, we're going to get a lot better. I promise you," predicts a cautious yet optimistic Auriemma. "But we're pretty damn good right now."
The statistics from past seasons may provide some evidence. Of the five previous teams that ran the table, going undefeated in the Big East regular season, four went on to win national championships, including the past three. And in the only other two seasons that had five players scoring at an average in double figures, the season also ended with the trophy.
There is no question that this is a young team, but it is a very talented and balanced team. Is it a year too soon to place those historically exorbitant expectations on this team?
Perhaps those voices could tell us. But where were they coming from, and where can we find them when we need them?
"When you leave the locker room, we have this big giant thing [a mural on the wall] -- all of our All-Americans playing in the WNBA with their WNBA jerseys," Auriemma confessed.. "I was walking out of the locker room, [and] I said to Jamelle [Elliott], ‘You know what I'd really love right now? If I was like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams and one of those guys would just walk off of there, and just come out and play the game.'"
"That would be awesome, wouldn't it?"
Perhaps a word or two of encouragement from the past is all that this team really needs.
Richard M. Walton covers women's college basketball for Inside Connecticut Sports.