UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma said that especially on a team with no seniors and six freshmen, he's concerned about how the No. 3-ranked Huskies will deal with the delayed start to their season because of COVID-19 protocol. But he added that the players have been a big part of helping him keep his spirits up during challenging times.
UConn announced Monday that someone affiliated with the team tested positive, which meant the program has to go into a 14-day pause before being able to all work together again or play any games. Auriemma said Tuesday that the positive test did not come from a player or a coach and that the person was asymptomatic. He also added he didn't think careless behavior led to the positive test.
"I have no reason to believe they were in any way being reckless and wanting to just throw caution to the wind," Auriemma said on a Zoom call Tuesday. "It's just one of those things that happen."
The UConn players, coaches and essential personnel are tested three times a week on non-consecutive days. Players currently are quarantining in small groups or pods, which they were also in when they first came to campus in Storrs, Connecticut, earlier this year. If they test negative twice more this week, they can return to working out on court in their pods Saturday.
But the pods can't mix, so each workout will be limited to whatever can be done with just a few players. Auriemma said even with the players' commitment to fitness, it will be difficult for them to be in game shape when they are able to start the season.
"I have tremendous empathy for my players," Auriemma said. "When we talked yesterday about us having to put a pause on this, I felt really guilty that it was happening to them.
"They came back at me with, 'Coach, these things are out of our control. And we'll come back from this and we'll deal with it, and we're going to be even better than we were before going into it.' So as far as kids being resilient? Yeah. They want this so bad that they understand there's nothing we can do to prevent this or to avoid the consequences when it strikes."
Still, Auriemma, who's starting his 36th season at UConn, knows there is a strain on everyone.
"How resilient can [the players] be? I don't know," he said. "Much more than I am. It's been a real struggle for me, as I'm sure it's been for other coaches, for parents, for teachers, for healthcare workers especially. There isn't anyone that's escaped this."
Auriemma said it's like the players have been "held hostage since the end of July" -- not allowed to go anywhere off campus -- and that practices have been like "recess" for them.
"And yet they hang in there," Auriemma said. "They just talk about, 'When is our first game?' ... to me, that seems to be the best way to do it. At this time, when I'm supposed to be there, giving them all the good stuff that they need, I'm getting it from them. It's, 'Coach, relax, man, everything will be all right.'"
UConn had to pull out of the Hall of Fame Women's Basketball Challenge that was to be held this weekend at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut; that event -- which also was to feature No. 6 Mississippi State -- officially was called off Tuesday. UConn was supposed to meet No. 5 Louisville in the Jimmy V. Women's Classic at Mohegan Sun, too, on Dec. 4; the Cardinals are still seeking an opponent for that game.
UConn's Dec. 6 game at Seton Hall -- which was to have been its first Big East game since returning to the conference this season -- is postponed. If the Huskies are able to return to play after 14 days, their opener would be Dec. 15 against Butler in Storrs.
Only four on the Huskies' 11-player roster have played previously for UConn; along with the six freshmen, there is junior Evina Westbrook, who was with the team last season but had to sit out after transferring from Tennessee.
The country's top recruit, guard Paige Bueckers, leads a rookie class that should make a quick impact. But they'll have limited time to prepare. Auriemma said he's trying to approach the start of this season similarly to his time with the U.S. national team, which has just short windows for practice before international competition.
Auriemma was asked about the suggestion some college coaches have made to push the men's and women's Final Fours back to have "May Madness." He said while he was open to that flexibility, there would be no guarantee the pandemic would be any more manageable then. Ultimately, he said he believes those with the NCAA are "really smart people" who are trying to make the best decisions for the men's and women's basketball seasons.
Auriemma also said that he assumes multiple programs will have to go through what the Huskies are enduring now, and pause their seasons. He pointed out that there are different guidelines by conferences and by individual states regarding testing, contact tracing and quarantining.
"Given the nature of that, I could see this happening every week," Auriemma said. "Where one place says, 'Yeah, we're good to go,' and the other school says, 'No, you're not.' This is what we have in front of us right now until further notice.
"I'm just trying to reassure [the players] that it will be fine ... don't worry. Things are going to be great. I'm sure there was a guy on the Titanic who was in charge of saying that. I just hope I'm not that guy."
Auriemma was also asked about the increased organization of parental involvement in college sports, spurred in large part by COVID-19 concerns. It has been notable in football, and an organization called the College Basketball Parents Association announced Tuesday it was forming to help parents be more influential collectively.
"Anything that brings any kind of awareness to an issue is a good thing," Auriemma said. "If a group of parents wants to get together and advocate for their child's health and safety ... that's all good. In the area of physical health, mental health, and how coaches treat individual players ... I think it's a great thing."
Auriemma said as long as such organizations focus on player welfare, and not things such as who gets playing time, parental groups could be good for athletes.
"Parents have every right to say, 'I don't want my kid in an unsafe environment,'" Auriemma said. "'I don't want you to shirk responsibility. I don't want you to cut corners just so you can play a game.'"