Discipline key to UConn's success

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Discipline can make an enormous difference for a sports team. And there may not be a collegiate sports program in the country that has better exemplified that over the long haul than Connecticut women's basketball.

Monday at Pinnacle Bank Arena here in Nebraska's state capital, the top-seeded Huskies face No. 3 seed Texas A&M with the goal of earning UConn's 15th Women's Final Four appearance, and seventh in a row.

How do you get that kind of consistent excellence? Sure, UConn can recruit great players, and Breanna Stewart is already one of the nation's very best as only a sophomore.

But there are extremely talented players elsewhere, too. What UConn has been able to do is establish a very disciplined style of play that everyone on the roster buys into. It actually goes beyond style of play, though, to being the way the Huskies do everything. And that process starts with the kind of personalities who join Geno Auriemma's program.

"They definitely have a type they recruit," UConn senior Stefanie Dolson said. "I know something they look for is someone who doesn't dwell on things. So if you make a mistake, you won't just think about yourself. Coach wants us to always think about our teammates.

"And with the whole discipline thing, overall, I give a lot of credit for that to CD. She makes sure we're very disciplined off the court. That we're doing things right there, because it translates."

"CD," of course, is associate head coach Chris Dailey, who has been at UConn with Auriemma since 1985.

"As we've gotten better, the pool of kids who can play for us has gotten smaller," Dailey said. "And the pool of kids who fits us and wants to come here is even smaller than that."

What? Who doesn't want to come play for the eight-time NCAA champions? Well, here's the thing. Kids are kids. They are about today and tomorrow, and also typically think like this: "Will I start? How many minutes am I going to get?"

Plus, you sometimes hear young players say things like "I'm a point guard," or "I'm a shooting guard," or "I really like the wing, but I don't like posting up very much" or ...

If you want to play for UConn, your mindset needs to be: "I'm a basketball player, and I do what I'm asked to do."

"You start out with getting players that are really coachable," Auriemma said. "Then you coach the hell out of them."

And if this seems like just a bunch of platitudes, it's not. One concrete example of UConn's discipline is how well the Huskies avoid foul trouble. This year's team isn't deep; UConn's starters all played at least 34 minutes in the semifinal victory against BYU.

So a strategy against the Huskies might be to try to get them in foul trouble, right?

But it rarely happens. This season, only two Huskies -- guards Moriah Jefferson and Brianna Banks -- have fouled out. Each did it once.

And this year isn't the first time that a great Huskies team didn't have all that much depth. It's been the case before, and the hope of forcing UConn starters to the bench with foul trouble has been floated in the past. It's a wish by opponents that almost never gets fulfilled.

The Huskies are trained very rigorously not to foul. That takes good athleticism, yes. But it's just as much about playing smart and -- you guessed it -- being disciplined.

"The minute you smack somebody, all of your hard work is negated," Auriemma said in regard to playing solid defense, only to end up sending a foe to the line with a mistake out of bad judgment or frustration. "After a while, they understand that, 'If I want to stay in the game, I can't foul.'

"If that's part of your culture, then it just kind of becomes who you are year after year after year. It's like teams who take bad shots, they take bad shots every year."

Discipline on defense isn't just about avoiding costly fouls but also following a system that -- at its best -- can strangle the opposition.

The last team to beat UConn in an Elite Eight game was LSU in 2007, when Bob Starkey was interim coach for the Tigers (he had taken over that season when Pokey Chatman was forced to resign).

Starkey is now an assistant coach at Texas A&M. He said disciplined adherence to their defensive principles makes the Huskies extremely tough to score against.

"Defensively, I think they were doing this in the women's game before most anybody else -- they're excellent at playing gaps." Starkey said. "They can do that because of their length. They don't have to come out and smother you, but they still get deflections and steals because they are in good position and they are disciplined. Geno gets so much credit for their offense, but he's a defensive genius as well.

"The way they play their gaps is much more zone-oriented than it is man-oriented. It lets you cover a lot of space, but it still gives you what you want out of your man-to-man defense with your individual responsibility."

Against Texas A&M, discipline becomes all the more of a focus. The Aggies are a very different team than the BYU squad that UConn beat 70-51 on Saturday. Texas A&M has a more athletic defense, and it is more guard-oriented offensively. The Aggies didn't make a 3-pointer in their 84-65 victory over DePaul on Saturday, but they didn't need to. Guard Courtney Walker led five Aggies in double figures with 25 points.

Coach Gary Blair's philosophy is for the Aggies to not try to do things they aren't particularly good at doing. Don't force it. Texas A&M made just 81 3-pointers this season, with sophomore point guard Jordan Jones leading the way with 20.

So the Aggies aren't going to jack up a bunch of 3s if they want to stay disciplined in following their style. But Blair also knows he won't be able to lure the Huskies away from what they do best, either. Which is ... well, a lot.

For Texas A&M to try to upset UConn, the Aggies will have to be just as disciplined as the Huskies -- or at least close to it -- and then not be overwhelmed by the task.

"You've got to believe in yourself for what you've done to get here," said Blair, who won the NCAA title in 2011, but didn't beat UConn along the way. "If you sit back and say, 'Oh, there's Geno!' There's Breanna! There's Stefanie!' you'll get your butt handed to you."

Certainly in this perfect (so far) season, some teams have given UConn more of a challenge than others. But none have been able to force the Huskies away from how they want to play. The Huskies just don't beat themselves.

"We kind of don't want to hear Coach when we make mistakes," UConn senior Bria Hartley said, smiling. "So we just work really hard to not make them."