Before the season begins is a time to take stock of the astounding numbers. The Connecticut women's basketball program under coach Geno Auriemma has won 10 NCAA championships, including the past three in a row, and advanced to the Final Four a total of 16 times. Auriemma's record in 29 seasons at UConn is 917-134.
Four of his players have been No. 1 draft picks in the WNBA; three have won that league's MVP award. A fifth, forward Breanna Stewart, is sure to be taken first in the 2016 draft by Seattle, where she'll join Sue Bird, who was the first Huskies player to go No. 1, in 2002.
Stewart and fellow senior Moriah Jefferson are trying to win a fourth NCAA championship this season, something no other players have done, not even UConn's Diana Taurasi or Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw. They each won three titles. UConn redshirt junior forward Morgan Tuck missed most of the 2013-14 season, but she's still been part of the Huskies' journey the past three seasons. Quite a recruiting class.
"Anytime you win a championship, it's meaningful and something special," Auriemma said. "To have a class come in as freshmen and win a championship every year, that's a dream come true. For Stewie, Moriah and Tuck, if that were to ever come true for them, it would be one the most remarkable things ever in college basketball."
If it were to ever come true? That sounds like it's something far-fetched, which it most certainly isn't. In fact, at some point, UConn winning championships started to seem almost pre-ordained: This is what the Huskies have done ... so this is what they're bound to do again.
But the people who are responsible for orchestrating all this winning -- Auriemma and his assistants, including his three-decade sidekick, Chris Dailey -- are the last ones thinking right now about the hypothetical finished product. They know all the steps it takes to get there, regardless of how many star players they have, or how many games those players have won.
So as we get ready for the start of the 2015-16 women's basketball season, of course we proclaim UConn as the favorite to win the title in Indianapolis next April, to get that unprecedented four-peat.
But what we won't say is that title No. 11 is already in the bag, or an almost sure-thing that the Huskies simply have to show up to claim. Because that's as unfair to them as it is to the rest of the teams that go into this season determined to prove that they, too, have a chance.
What UConn does isn't a process of automation; it's all very human and subject to error. Which is part of what makes it remarkable that the Huskies have been so strong for so long. Virtually always, the bugs are all worked out by NCAA tournament time, if not before.
That's not just because UConn gets talent, but that the talent that goes to Storrs is always very carefully selected. Auriemma isn't interested in recruits who make self-aggrandized pronouncements such as, "I'm definitely a 2 guard," or "I'm not really a 3-point shooter" or "I don't do well in that style of play."
Instead, he wants those who say simply, "I'm a basketball player, here to learn. And I expect to get my butt kicked early and often in practice, no matter my lofty prep pedigree."
It seems a long time ago -- although it was only 2012-13 -- that Stewart as a freshman was struggling with exactly how she was supposed to play at UConn. While her growing pains were real, they weren't as dramatic as it sometimes appeared. She was in destroyer-mode by tournament time, and was the most outstanding player of the Final Four in New Orleans.
She did it again in 2014 in Nashville, and then -- despite not thinking she deserved it -- once more won the honor in Tampa last season. Stewart thought the 2015 award should have gone to Jefferson, but in the end they both got the trophy they most wanted.
Forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who finished as the Division I leader in 3-point field goals (398), and center Kiah Stokes moved on to the WNBA this past summer. So how will Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck do as the wise old owls for the Huskies?
"I think the leadership that Tuck provides makes it easier for Stewie and Moriah to do their thing," Auriemma said. "It's more natural and more part of Tuck's personality than it is for Stewie or Moriah. That's just the way Tuck has been at every level. Moriah and Stewie are doing what they have always done; they make plays, and that is how the lead."
Tuck, though, made her share of plays, too, last season. She was the third-leading scorer at 14.4 PPG behind Stewart (17.6) and Mosqueda-Lewis (14.9). Jefferson averaged 12.4 points and defensively harassed some of the other top guards in the nation into ineffectiveness.
And no statistic says "UConn women's basketball" more than this: five players had 100 or more assists last season, led by Jefferson's 191. The Huskies do so many things exceptionally well every season that it's difficult to single out one as the hallmark of the program. But if you had to pick, it would be their passing.
As a freshman, Kia Nurse averaged 10.2 points with 108 assists, and she's back from a summer helping Team Canada secure a spot in the 2016 Olympics. Auriemma will be coaching the United States team again in that event, with a large cast of UConn alums, almost certainly including Stewart, playing for him.
Auriemma has done the balancing act between coaching UConn and the national team for quite some time now, and he's kept it all compartmentalized. He'll be trying to lead Team USA to a sixth consecutive gold next year in Rio, but right now he's focused on things like getting his blue-chip freshmen to understand the UConn way of doing things.
"To have a class come in as freshmen and win a championship every year, that's a dream come true. For Stewie, Moriah and Tuck, if that were to ever come true for them, it would be one the most remarkable things ever in college basketball." Geno Auriemma
Rookies Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier, and De'Janae Boykin are all expected to contribute.
"They are going to play early, and they are going to play often," Auriemma said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they are in the game late, either."
Of course, "late in the game" doesn't necessarily mean pressure time for UConn -- in fact, it usually doesn't. Last season, the Huskies led Division I in both scoring (89.3 PPG) and defense, limiting their opponents to 48.6 PPG.
The Huskies are the favorites to win the American Athletic Conference title again. And while they have some good-on-paper foes in nonconference games -- Ohio State, Notre Dame, Florida State, Maryland and South Carolina among them -- most of the Huskies' league games are decided before they even start.
And yet, that also gets to the mastery that Auriemma and his staff have of developing their team season after season. The amount of real challenges the Huskies face varies by season, but even when that rarely happens, UConn still steadily improves in preparation for the NCAA tournament. The old saying of playing up to your own standard, rather than to that of your opponent, is another pillar of the UConn way of doing things.
So, yes, we expect UConn to be where this team usually is when it's time for March-turned-April madness. But right now, the Huskies are working on all the details and not getting ahead of themselves. Which is a big part of why it's so hard for anybody else to get ahead of them.