The men’s and women’s college game have developed at a nearly identical pace. But U.C.L.A. has won only one title since 1975, and it is now only a middling power in an age of increased parity. Can UConn, bucolic but isolated in Storrs, Conn., avoid a similar drift? Especially with an athletic department that ran a deficit of more than $40 million in fiscal 2019 and exists outside a Power 5 conference, while women’s powers in the Southeastern, Pac 12 and Big 12 conferences offer verdant campuses and the security of football bounty?
Check out the men’s rankings, Auriemma admonished when I brought up the issue. Seven of the top 16 teams — Gonzaga, Dayton and San Diego State among them — are not from Power 5 conferences. Neither is Villanova, which won national titles in 2016 and in 2018.
“I can’t speak for after I leave, but as long as I’m coaching here, we won’t be hard to find,” Auriemma said. “We won’t be drifting away. You’ll know exactly where we are. And that’s not going to change one iota.”
Auriemma turns 66 this month. And he said he could see himself coaching another five years. UConn is in the hunt for the nation’s top projected recruit for 2021, Azzi Fudd, a 5-foot-11 guard from Washington, D.C., and a close friend of Bueckers, the incoming freshman star.
Recruits now often want something more personal than a coach-player relationship. Dawn Staley of South Carolina, the 2017 national champion, signed four of the top 13 high school players for the current season after her staff applied a full-court press “talking to every single person that’s involved in their lives.”
Auriemma prefers to be seen as an instructor, not a friend, to his players. To adjust, he now casts a wider net for talent. For next season, he has signed, among others, guards from Canada and Croatia. Evina Westbrook, a transfer guard from Tennessee sitting out this season, also will be eligible.