Sometimes I think of UConn's women's basketball program as a giant version of one of those rock-polishing tumblers. You know, where you put stones in with the coarse grit, the fine grit, the pre-polish and the polish as part of the process that makes them look like gems.
That is what's supposed to happen, anyway. It never worked very well for me. Maybe because 1970s rock-polishing kits for kids were a little on the cheap side. Or maybe I was hit-and-miss about precisely following the directions.
Or maybe I just wasn't patient enough. You had to run the tumbler for what seemed like forever to me -- it might have been only a week -- but I would get bored, open it, be disappointed it still contained rocks instead of priceless jewels and then go do something else. It was hard to stay committed to the process.
The Huskies, though, always seem to find the right rocks and understand the best way to polish them. Breanna Stewart, our espnW preseason player of the year, is the latest example.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma and his staff know precisely what they're looking for when rock hunting, er, recruiting. It's definitely not as simple as, "Wow, look at that athletic talent." Not everyone is cut out for the UConn tumbler. For the ones who are, though, it has a very high rate of success.
"The main reason I decided to come to Connecticut was knowing all the players that Coach Auriemma has had go through his program and how they've turned out," Stewart said.
The UConn star constellation of the past 20 years -- most prominently Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters, Nykesha Sales, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Stewart -- includes some very different personality types. And, of course, different kinds of players.
But whether the designated "UConn stars" have been extroverted guards or introverted post players or just the opposite, they always come to embrace the highest of expectations and sense of responsibility toward the team.
"I wanted to go somewhere I'd be able to be pushed and reach my fullest potential," said Stewart, a 6-foot-4 junior from Syracuse, New York. "And at the same time, go after national championships."
Before Stewart even appeared in a game for UConn, she'd been anointed by some as already well down the path toward being the best-ever Huskies player. It's pretty easy to see why people thought that, though, based on how talented she was. Even Auriemma has suggested the possibility that someday Stewart really might end up atop that very tall mountain.
But that's really a subject for reflection at a much later date. Like everyone else who comes to Storrs, Connecticut -- from the projected biggest stars to the medium-range stars to the role players -- Stewart went into the tumbler. Auriemma and longtime assistant Chris Dailey truly are experts on the polishing process.
In Stewart's freshman season, she was knocked off-kilter at times as the tumbler spun around, shaping her. She had to get used to the demands of college ball as played to Auriemma specifications.
In retrospect, her rookie-year difficulties now seem almost manufactured for dramatic purposes, as if some tattered script had demanded them because nobody can come in and just be "UConn-ized" without some pain.
In reality, there really were some tough times and genuine frustration for Stewart. But she "gemmed up" right on time and won most outstanding player honors at her first Final Four in 2013.
The Huskies' four losses that season and the times Stewart had seemed in the doghouse (well, relatively speaking) had been an effective grit working on her.
"I understand what he's trying to do," Stewart said of Auriemma. "He's trying to get the best out of me at all times. My freshman year was a struggle, except for the last few games. I knew he was an intense coach, but you don't experience it until you get there. We kind of butted heads the majority of the season."
Before Stewart entered her sophomore season, there were still some women's basketball observers willing to debate whether she was the best player in college. For our title of "espnW preseason player of the year" last season, only two of us voted for Stewart. This season, it was unanimous.
Stewart averaged 19.4 points and 8.1 rebounds last season for the 40-0 Huskies. She won another "most outstanding player" award at the Final Four. Then this fall, she was the only college player on the USA Basketball team that won gold in the world championship. Moore had done the same thing four years earlier before her senior season with the Huskies.
Stewart has two college seasons left and a chance to do what even all the previous UConn luminaries have not: win four NCAA titles. She has the size and natural skill to be a true post player. But she's also so comfortable with the ball in her hands and with scoring from the perimeter, that she's also pretty much a true guard.
In fact, she's really not any specific position, but rather Auriemma's favorite thing: just a basketball player.
And she has also let more of her personality out. Stewart is a sports junkie who knows the historical context of what she's doing in UConn's championship-laden program.
She might surprise you with the low-key wisecrack at times. She's very comfortable being the "we" that Auriemma demands his players embrace, but she also seems confident about the "me" part. She knows she must be a good caretaker of her talent, and that people's eyes are always on her. She understands that she means a lot to this sport.
There is still a lot more shaping to be done, of course. That's another thing Auriemma instills in his players: Their polishing process on court doesn't end until they're not playing anymore.
But this season we should appreciate the current form of gem that Stewart already has become.