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Auriemma always out to get better

UConn's Geno Auriemma recently took part in a group discussion with his fellow American Athletic Conference coaches at the league's media day. And there, you got to see Auriemma practicing what he has so successfully preached.

That even the biggest star is never bigger than the team.

Auriemma -- whose 30th season at UConn begins Friday as the Huskies play UC Davis in California -- has had plenty of stars in his program. Some of the very best players in women's basketball history, in fact. He has had a lot of talent to work with as he has compiled nine NCAA titles as the Huskies' coach.

But it's not as if there haven't been extremely gifted players at a lot of other programs, too, during Auriemma's three decades in Storrs, Connecticut.

What Auriemma and his staff have nearly perfected is finding the "right" great players: the ones who come to UConn knowing they will always be challenged and never be coddled. Who understand that being the best player in the world isn't worth much if you're a lousy teammate. Who accept that once you are a part of something, you buy in and stick with it.

Auriemma is now a part of the American, a conference of castaway schools who've come together for lack of a better alternative. UConn's is the only women's basketball program in the conference to have ever gone to the Final Four.

If we want to be brutally honest, Auriemma in this group stands out like Johnny Depp doing an actors workshop alongside dinner-theater veterans.

The point is actually not to denigrate anybody else in the American. It's simply to show that Auriemma is the megastar, and yet in the aforementioned coaches' panel discussion, he was clearly trying to be one of the gang. He was touting the other programs and the conference -- patchwork and random as it is -- and supporting the other coaches' opinions.

So you understand why the standards he sets for players are typically met. They can see that he sets them for himself, too.

Here we go again

And now we're at the start of another women's college hoops season in which the ultimate question once more is, "Can anyone stop UConn from winning the championship?"

The Huskies went 40-0 last year, the program's fifth unbeaten season under Auriemma. Last April, they defeated another unbeaten squad, Notre Dame, to win the 2014 championship game in Nashville, Tennessee.

They have the consensus best player in college, Breanna Stewart, back for her junior season. She's motivated to do what no previous UConn superstar has: Win four NCAA titles. She's halfway there, and most prognosticators are picking UConn and Stewart again this season.

People who don't pay much attention to women's basketball might scoff that UConn's persistent excellence is an indictment of the level of parity.

But that's the thing that those who do follow the sport closely have a difficult task explaining. The fact is, the women's basketball's talent pool really has grown. The level of coaching really has improved. The number of competitive programs really has expanded.

All that is what makes UConn's sustained success all the more admirable. Or maddening, depending on your point of view.

To UConn fans, Auriemma is like divinity. They love his sarcastic sense of humor, his blunt comments, his rambling asides, how he represents a New Englander's view that seeing the glass as half-empty actually is also a form of optimism.

A guarded optimism that maybe that glass can still be filled up.

That is Auriemma to a T: Each season, he still worries about it all coming together. He's still annoyed by mistakes even when they don't matter against overmatched competition. He's energized by challenges when they come along.

He has not sat back and truly marveled at the hardware he and his teams have collected. He's too busy with the next pursuit, and in that regard, yes, the glass still does need to be filled. That's true again every fall.

Oh, and Auriemma added to the degree of difficulty of his job and life by taking on the U.S. national team coaching responsibility again for another Olympic cycle. His term in that role so far has resulted in two world championship gold medals -- the most recent in October -- and one Olympic gold, with the 2016 Rio Games coming up.

Sowing the seeds of success

Just look at this year for confirmation that Auriemma is the reigning sovereign of women's basketball at all levels. There was the completion of another perfect college season in the spring. During the summer, two UConn legends -- Minnesota's Maya Moore and Phoenix's Diana Taurasi -- were the top candidates for the WNBA MVP award, which Moore eventually won.

Then the Mercury won their third league title, with Taurasi being named WNBA Finals MVP.

Then came the Americans' six-game run through the world championship, with Moore earning that tournament's MVP award.

Oh, and the young female athlete who garnered perhaps the most attention this summer -- Little League sensation Mo'ne Davis -- went to a WNBA game wearing a UConn sweatshirt and said her hope was to someday play for the Huskies. An irritated Auriemma got into a little hot water -- an NCAA secondary violation -- for congratulating the eighth-grader via phone call for her baseball success.

Then, this fall, UConn has topped everyone's preseason rankings. This week, the Huskies signed the three high school recruits they wanted, a trio that spans the nation geographically: One is from Maryland, one from Missouri and the other from California. All see faraway Storrs as the perfect collegiate destination.

And as the college season begins, so does the countdown to another milestone: Auriemma's 900th victory. He's 21 wins away, and it could come in February in his hometown of Philadelphia against Temple. The Owls' head coach is one of his protégés, former Huskies assistant Tonya Cardoza.

You don't need six degrees of separation to see Auriemma everywhere in this sport. His influence and impact are pervasive.

None of that endears him in the slightest to those in the women's basketball fan base who just flat out won't ever like him or his wisecracking ways. But that antipathy is actually part of the Geno mystique, too. He has also made "whoever's playing UConn" one of the most popular teams in the sport.

That's another kind of tribute, though. One that deep down, Auriemma really might appreciate. How good are you when you're considered the perennial giant?

Auriemma and his program are that good. Again. Catch them if you can.