UConn's Geno Auriemma is espnW's coach of the year, while Oregon's Ionescu named top freshman

Geno Auriemma's Huskies -- who lost their top three players from a season ago to the top three picks in the WNBA draft -- are 32-0 and have helped run UConn's winning streak to 107 consecutive games. Photo by David Hahn/Icon Sportswire

No coach ever wants to lose, but many will tell you that at times, it's not the worst thing that can happen. They might feel their teams, inadvertently perhaps, aren't listening to them as intently as is needed. A loss can refocus the players' attention.

Then there's UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who over the last four seasons has lost once. So much for using losses as a teaching tool. In the rare times they happen to UConn, he makes the most of them. But he really doesn't need them.

Although you could say no one in Division I women's basketball tried any harder to lose this season than Auriemma did: He scheduled to challenge his team as much as possible.

Yet here we are with UConn on a 107-game winning streak, having the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament locked up, and in the driver's seat for a fifth consecutive national championship, which would be Auriemma's 12th overall.

He is our espnW national coach of the year, and this choice was easy and unanimous. Losing Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck -- yet not losing a game after their departures? Yeah, that's amazing, even for the coach and program that have set the bar for success in college athletics.

Those incredible seniors departed as the top picks in the WNBA draft. Auriemma knew it would be sink-or-swim for his remaining players, who were talented but less experienced at carrying the load. As he put it, he had players whom he knew could be great, but they hadn't had to do that yet in the biggest moments for UConn to win. This season they did.

So into the deep end of the pool the Huskies went, playing the likes of Florida State, Baylor, Texas, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Maryland and South Carolina.

Auriemma had just one player back, junior Kia Nurse, who had started every game last season. He had Saniya Chong, who is a senior who'd struggled her whole career to be consistent, and a freshman, Crystal Dangerfield, handling a lot of the point guard duties.

Admittedly, he had three potential superstars -- junior Gabby Williams and sophomores Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson -- ready to step into bigger roles. But as Auriemma pointed out frequently in the preseason, they still had to prove they could handle that pressure.

And they have, highlighting one of the many things Auriemma's UConn system does incredibly well: help players get demonstratively better, even when they're already very good.

The Huskies have had a couple of close calls this season, which wasn't the case a year ago. UConn edged Florida State by two points in the season opener in November, and got a scare at Tulane in February, winning by three. But they're still 32-0, seeking a seventh perfect season. And they will head into the NCAA tournament feeling very, very strong.

"I don't know if we could play any better than we did tonight," Auriemma said Monday after the Huskies' 100-44 victory over South Florida for the American Athletic Conference tournament title.

Yet the genius, discipline and commitment that has led Auriemma to this almost mind-numbing success guarantees this: Even if seems like UConn can't possibly play better, he'll find a way to make it happen.

Freshman of the year: Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu

A year ago at this time, it was unknown where Sabrina Ionescu would be going to college. In fact, it wasn't until June 2016 that the multifaceted 5-foot-10 guard announced she would play for Oregon.

Ionescu, who is from Walnut Creek, California, took her time -- and then some -- reaching that conclusion, wanting to be absolutely sure of her choice. On court, her decision-making is more of the lightening-fast variety, which contributed to an astonishing four triple-doubles in her rookie season.

Ionescu, who has averaged 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists, is our espnW national freshman of the year. She helped lead the Ducks, 20-13 overall and 8-10 Pac-12, to a 70-69 upset of Washington in the league tournament. Ionescu had 18 points, six rebounds and six assists against the Huskies, hitting the game-winning free throws with 6.4 seconds left.

The Ducks are expected to earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 2005, the kind of turnaround that Oregon was hoping for when Kelly Graves was hired in 2014. After success at mid-major schools Saint Mary's and Gonzaga, Graves came to Oregon trying to get the school back into Pac-12 and national competitiveness.

Oregon went 13-17 in Graves' first year, then 24-11 with a run to the WNIT semifinals last year. That was a definite step forward for the Ducks, but they wanted to move back into the Big Dance this year.

Key to that effort, obviously, was recruiting. From the time Graves and his staff took over in 2014, they made the recruiting class of 2016 an enormous priority, knowing they'd be bringing in six freshmen this season. And in Ionescu, the Ducks landed the type of player who makes impact plays with regularity.

Ionescu and two fellow freshmen, post players Ruthy Hebard and Mallory McGwire, have seen time as starters for the Ducks. Ionescu and Hebard -- who is the team's leading scorer (14.5) and rebounder (8.5) -- are part of a nation-wide group of impact players as freshmen. That includes the likes of Texas' Joyner Holmes, Maryland's Destiny Slocum, South Carolina's Tyasha Harris, Notre Dame's Jackie Young, UConn's Crystal Dangerfield and Georgia Tech's Francesca Pan.

Ionescu had to miss five games this season with a broken thumb on her shooting hand, but that was just a bump in the road. Her triple-doubles came in victories against San Jose State (11 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists), Clemson (23, 12, 10), Utah (14, 10, 13), and UCLA (11, 10, 10).

For some players, that would be a career's worth of triple-doubles. For Ionescu, it's nothing she doesn't expect.