GREG CHRISTOPHER: Thanks, Rick, and congratulations to Geno and the UCONN Huskies for a fantastic season. I think everybody's aware this is the first time since 1989 and only the second time in the history of the women's basketball tournament that we've got all four No. 1 seeds coming to the Final Four, and these are the four teams that stood out all season and separates themselves. So we are looking forward to a fantastic Final Four here in Denver, and look forward to welcoming everybody to the Mile High City. So with that, turn it back over to Rick.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks. I'll ask Geno for a quick opening statement, and go directly to questions. Geno, go ahead.
COACH AURIEMMA: Thanks, guys. First I want to commend the committee. Having been in that room and watching how you guys operate, I know it's not easy, and it's not easy to get it completely right. And maybe it's impossible to get it completely right. But I thought this year, more so than any year that I can remember, I thought the committee did an unbelievable job of balancing the brackets and trying to put together a competitive tournament. I think from the lack of moaning and groaning that coaches want to do this time of the year, I think a lot of coaches agree with me. So congratulations to all of you that were involved in that. For us, it's been an unbelievable ride up to this point. So many ups in the beginning of the season. So many questions that we had, so much questioning of ourselves through the middle of the season, and then a real coming together at the end. I'm really, really proud of this group and how we've grown up in a short period of time. It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of kids. And I'm thrilled they're getting an opportunity to do something that most kids go to college dreaming of. So we're very fortunate, and we can't wait to get out to Denver.
Q. This is arguably the strongest field in Final Four history. You've played all four, all three other teams this year. What is the one common thread these teams have in common that got them here?
COACH AURIEMMA: I would say if you look at four teams, you see maybe a little bit of similarity in the fact that all four teams are committed defensively to playing five-on-five and making it very difficult for teams to get the kind of shots they normally get. I remember playing all three teams, and we certainly remember how hard it was to score in every one of those games. I think the other thing you see is that they each have, at least the other three that I know of, they each have people that are okay with the spotlight. They're okay with the big moment. They've had enough failure and enough frustration to kind of harden them and toughen them. Baylor with being there and then not having the chance to be there last year, and Notre Dame with losing in the championship game last year, and Stanford with the heartbreak loss to Texas A&M last year. So I think the teams that are there, other than us, and including us, with the loss we had in the semifinals, I think all the teams have a little bit of a hunger. There is no defending national champion that's in the field. So I think the same thing is going through everyone's mind at this point in time.
Q. Geno, you've been to a lot of Final Fours and you've been speaking about the strength of this year's field. Can you compare the strength of this year's field to the previous trips you've taken, how maybe it's wide open or that the Top 5 programs all season long made it to Denver?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, I saw somewhere, -because people want to do that during this day and age. Somebody told me there was a poll on ESPN, and 76% of the people picked Baylor to win. If they had asked me, they would have been 78-point-something, I would have probably said the same thing when you look at how they've gone through their season. I remember being in their shoes when we had a team that everyone thought unless we play poorly, no one was going to beat us. So you've got that, and a great Stanford team with two phenomenal players in the Ogwumike sisters, and then Notre Dame with those three seniors. They do a lot. Certainly Skylar Diggins is playing unbelievable basketball right now. I don't remember in the last couple years, anyway, there being that kind of depth although there have been other times. I remember the great Georgia teams, and the great Stanford teams, and the great Tennessee teams of past years when we were in the Final Four with them but having all four number ones. That's what's going to make this tournament hard to win. There are not going to be a lot of upsets. You're going to have to play a 10 seed or 8 seed or 6 seed. Some people may think that's a negative, and it takes away from some of the excitement. At the same time, if you win a National Championship in women's basketball, you didn't sneak into it. You didn't beat somebody that was lucky to get there. So whoever win this is tournament this coming weekend will have earned it, because they'll have beaten two of the best teams in college basketball in quite some time.
Q. Do you plan for the altitude at all in your preparation and practice? Some people come in for a game, and it doesn't really affect them. But the men's teams that have played NCAA Tournaments here are teams that that second or third day at practice or what not tends to tire and take plays off. Do you take that into account?
COACH AURIEMMA: Yeah, I don't know how much-- I don't know what you can do about it. It's not like there's one team out there that's waiting for us, and we're visiting, and they have a huge advantage. I think all four teams are having to go through similar scenarios. But we've talked to our team doctor and he's let us know how to best prepare for it. I suggested turning the oxygen off in the plane on the way over there for about an hour and get them used to sucking for breath, but he advised us not to do that. So I guess we'll have to deal with it when we get there.
Q. I don't want this to sound the wrong way--
COACH AURIEMMA: That means it's going to sound the wrong way.
Q. That's why I'm prefacing it this way. But you yourself said this team doesn't have that every game superstar that you've had before. By saying that, I don't want to cast any aspersion on Tiffany or anybody. But you said it is a little bit different component than having a Diana Taurasi or Maya Moore or even Tina Charles or Rebecca Lobo. How has that made coaching this team different? Secondly, when you lost that game to Notre Dame, you seemed really mad at your group. You seemed to feel like they weren't, as you said, tough enough that's obviously changed, and what changed about it? Was it them getting upset about that loss or were they close to tough and they just needed to hear that kind of language from you to get to where they needed to go?
COACH AURIEMMA: Early in the season when we beat a really, really good Stanford team, I came out of that game and said to the team, you know what, you guys surprised me. I didn't know whether we had that in us. I thought, Wow, this could be really good. Because we're not going to play teams that much better than Stanford throughout the season. All we need to do is work hard and keep getting better and we'll be okay. Then we played Texas A&M and beat them by 30. And I thought they're a really good team. They're a Sweet Sixteen team. Then we went to Baylor, and we're up 11. I thought nobody else is going to come in and be up 11. So all those things gave me a certain impression of who we were. Then for some reason sometime in January and a long time in February, we lost it. We stopped getting better. We stopped working at it. We stopped listening. We stopped executing. All of our bad habits and all the things I was fearful of started to rear their ugly heads. As we kept pointing it out as a coaching staff, it was going in one ear and out the other. It's like we're winning, Coach. Leave it alone. It took that Notre Dame game-- I should say the St. John's game when we lost at home on senior night. I said to them great programs don't lose on senior night. I don't care who you're playing. Great seniors, great players, great programs like Connecticut, you don't lose on senior night. That just doesn't happen. Then when Notre Dame happened a week later, it was like a double punch to the gut. I think it took that for them to understand this isn't going to get it done. Between that time and the Sunday when the Big East tournament started for us, I think those five days changed everything for us. Changed our mindset, our approach, our expectation level of each other was, and we grew up as a team that week. More so than maybe in those five days, more so than in the previous five months. Can that be enough to carry us through here? I don't know. When we played Stanford a couple years ago, they're up 20-12. Maya Moore came out in the second half and took over the game. If we're in that situation again, do we have somebody that can do that? I don't know. I don't know. But maybe that's what's exciting in the last couple weeks seeing who that is going to be. I think the team is excited, and so am I.
Q. If I could follow up. You talk about being in that position, which you've been in quite a lot, of everybody expects you're going to win unless you do something wrong. Baylor so far this season has been in that position. The similarity I see is a calmness with being able to handle those expectations. Does that come from a head coach? The kids do seem to handle the expectation that they're quote unquote supposed to win come from what you guys are giving to them?
COACH AURIEMMA: Yeah, I'm not seeing anybody calmer than Kim Mulkey on the sideline (laughing).
Q. Yeah, but you know what I mean. In terms of-- maybe calmness is the wrong word. How about extreme confidence, not panicking?
COACH AURIEMMA: I think the biggest advantage somebody like Baylor has is Brittney Griner. The next biggest advantage before you get to Odyssey Simms was having been there last year and being right on the cusp of getting to the Final Four and winning the National Championship when they thought they had the best team and having it taken away from them, that then fuels the fire, and I think they've managed it tremendously. They've not gone through the real highs. They've not gone through the lows. Not from an outside observer anyway. Calmness is one word. But I think that self-assurance, like we know we're good. We know what we need to do. We know what happened last year and why, and it's not going to happen again. They keep going and going, and that's a dangerous combination, best player in the tournament, and most self-assured team in the tournament?
Q. What most impresses you about Kim as a coach and about her as a personality? It seems like 40 years after Title IX, she seems to represent everything that was possible for women. Scholarships, Olympic Gold Medals, financial security, and a chance to be who you are without being apologetic about it. You can be a brash, forceful personality without being apologetic.
COACH AURIEMMA: Yeah, she stepped into a world that heretofore, since I'm speaking to the New York Times, okay, was the domain of just men. Men were allowed to act crazy on the sideline. Men were allowed to be cocky. Men were allowed to wear crazy outfits on the sidelines and be histrionic and do all the thing that's Kim does. It would be unladylike for a woman to do that. Well, like you said, those times have sailed on. And Kim, in her own way, does represent that new this is my game. I'm in complete control of my situation. This is who I am. This is how I was as a player. This is how I'm going to be as a coach. This is how I want to represent myself and my team, and I commend her for that. A lot of people might not agree with what she does, how she does it, but her passion is undeniable. Her support of her team and her love of her players is unquestionable. Men, women, anybody should look at that and say I wish I had that much passion and that much caring for my job because it's just fun to watch. It really is. I can see why the players play the way they do for her.
Q. What most impresses you about her as a coach?
COACH AURIEMMA: She bitches over every single call. I like that. Even the call that's go in her favor, she bitches that the whistle wasn't blown fast enough. I love that. To me she reminds me of Jen Rizzotti and Shea Ralph, guys that played a few years ago and had that chip on their shoulder and they were tough and just wouldn't back down I just think she brings a toughness to the profession. Her players, I think, are reflective of that. Again, that whole lady-like, mild-mannered schoolmarm that used to coach women's basketball back in the day, I don't think Kim has any of that. I don't think she could spell that. She is who she is. There is no getting around that. I tell you that.
Q. Geno, what's it meant to you on how you want to run the program to have that same voice next to you for so many years in Chris? When is the last time you thought she might leave?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, when is the last time I thought she might leave? Well, with this group that we have right now and our post players and who they are right now, she's gotten fired at least once every practice and maybe twice every game, and she won't leave. So I'm kind of thinking that she really likes these kids. And I was trying like hell to get rid of her because I didn't think our post players would ever amount to anything this year. Other than that though, I think there was one job that came up a few years ago that I know she really, really, really wanted that job, and didn't get it. I think that kind of made her sit back and say, you know, I'd rather be here doing what I'm doing than have to be a head coach some place. I think she's grown into such a comfortable role. She has such impact on our program. She has such a presence in our program that I would venture to say it's probably more significant and more impactful than a majority of head coaches have on their program wherever they're coaching. Suffice to say, we would not be where we are, and I would not be where I am without what Chris has done for me personally as a coach and for our program in general.
Q. What concerns you the most about Notre Dame?
COACH AURIEMMA: The most, everything. This is the eighth time we're playing them in 12 months, and it's crazy, isn't it? I mean, it's just ridiculous. Everything. Everything. I think if you stripped them apart as a team and all the components, you would find they don't have any weaknesses, and you can't say that about a lot of teams. They've got experience. They've got ball handlers. They've got shooters. They rebound the hell out of the ball. They've got slashers to the basket. They're really, really well-coached. They pass the ball well. They're one of the best coached teams I've seen in the last ten years. One of the best offensive teams, one of the best passing teams I've seen in a long, long time. Very, very difficult to find the weakness in this particular Notre Dame team.
Q. I've asked this of all the other coaches on this call today, and that is what do you think your squad does better than anyone else in the country?
COACH AURIEMMA: Wow. Good question. What do we do? Well, other than win the Big East Championship and win the Eastern Regional, we do good dance videos. We've been really good at those. We've done a couple this year and they've gotten rave reviews. Other than that, I would like to think that our defensive effort and the way we've guarded people this year, I would put that up against any team in the Final Four. I would think that we're as good defensively right now at this point in time as any team playing college basketball. I hope we get a chance to prove it this coming weekend.
Q. Geno, could you comment on the season that Kelly Faris has had for you? Talk about you mentioned the questions you kind of had to work through with this team. How big a role did she play in that being one of your more experienced players?
COACH AURIEMMA: I get this question all the time. We just talked about it at the regional about what does Kelly do for you? Why do you give her so many minutes? Why is she such an integral part of your team? I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this is absolutely true. A player's only as good as you think they are, and I think she's great. So I don't care what anybody else thinks. She's one of the best athletes in our league. She may be one of the best athletes in the country at her position, and people don't know that. She can guard the point guard. She can guard a small forward. She can guard a big guy. She's going to make enough shots, keep you honest, get enough rebounds. She's going to pass the ball to guys that are open. The impact that Kelly's had since she's been at Connecticut is-- the only person we've had during her career here that works harder than Kelly or as hard as Kelly has been Maya Moore. And Kelly is someone that I use as an example all the time about what great college basketball players should look like. Right now there is not one player that I think going into this Final Four has done more for their teams and gotten less credit for it than I think Kelly has.
Q. I'm sure it's hard, I don't want to say sell, but convince them that, hey, you're not going to score 25 like you did in high school every night. You're very important, but you're not going to score. She's kind of unique when she played in high school. She's all loaded, but didn't score that much for a big time recruit and stuff. Because of that, do you have any thoughts on why maybe she's accepted this role realizing that, hey, I don't have to score 20 every night? Maybe she's accepted this role maybe better than some other players might have?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, yeah, we don't necessarily go out and look for which kids score the most points. We've had kids come to Connecticut that if they wanted to, they could average 30 a game every night and make it look easy. Kids like Kelly who are more interested in her team winning than how many points she has, who is content to do all the other things. When you come to a team like Connecticut and have ten high school Americans on your team, something's gotta give. It takes a real smart player to understand if I do this, this and this, coach is going to play me, and I'm going to help us win. If I just come out here and try to score 25 every night, pretty good chance I'm not going to play a lot. So give Kelly credit. She took what she learned in high school of how to win and brought that to Connecticut, and we're better off for it.
Q. You referenced the game in Waco against Baylor. If my memory is correct, you played them the previous two years before, when Griner was a freshman, and last year at UCONN. Could you talk about their progression this year? And secondly, they've only had two games within five points. How did you go about attacking a team like Baylor?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, we're not playing Baylor. We're playing Notre Dame, so that's number one. If we were to beat Notre Dame, if we're fortunate enough to beat Notre Dame and we were playing Baylor, I wouldn't invoke that rule that the two teams that lose in the semifinals, you should be able to pick up one player from each team so that I could get Nekka or Skylar or somebody and put them on my team, and I think we'd have a shot at Baylor. You just can't underestimate how much of an impact somebody like Brittney Griner has on the game. Once you start to understand the impact that she has, by the time you figure that out, all the other kids on her team, her teammates have already carved you up and now it doesn't matter. You can't do anything about it anyway. So I don't know what the recipe is for beating Baylor. There may not be one. It may be as simple as boy, I hope Baylor plays lousy. It might be like when we had Renee, Tina and Maya, and went to the Final Four and people figured out what we have to do to beat Connecticut. Well, we hope they play lousy. Right now, all my thoughts are on Notre Dame. But if we should beat them, I'm going to hope Baylor plays lousy, or Stanford, because it's not a given that Baylor's going to beat Stanford.
Q. A quick follow-up on that. Excuse me for being parochial here. I know you're playing Notre Dame. But Gary Blair's suggestion was that you don't try to necessarily adjust to them. If you're a good team, you play the way you've played all year and just apply it that way. Do you buy into that argument at all that if you're confident in your game, you do that as opposed to gimmick it up or change for one game against Baylor?
COACH AURIEMMA: When you get to this point in the season, if you have to start changing things up, that's already a sign to your team that, hey, we're not good enough, so we've got to do some tricky stuff. At the same time you've got to come up with some little wrinkles, as they say, that might give you a little better chance. But I would agree with Gary. You're going to have to go in and be good at what you do, and be cognizant of the fact that they're not going to let you do some things that you're really good at, so you better have a plan B. It's like what Mike Tyson said. Everybody has a plan when they get in the ring. After you get punched really hard in the face, you better have a plan B.
Q. A lot of coaches I've talked to are really impressed with the defense you've played this year. With the lack of the All-American that you don't have this year, is this the best defense you've had as a team, and what makes this defense special?
COACH AURIEMMA: Sometimes playing with four guards is not bad. Sometimes you get beat because you don't have the size to contend with some teams. But the fact that we've played with four guards a lot, I think, gives us some versatility and flexibility to do some things. I think the other thing is just by necessity we've had to become a great defensive team, because, offensively, we're not sure whether every night we can get to 80 or 75. So the kids have really bought into it. We've tried to mix things up a little bit and keep people on edge a little bit. I would have to say the fact that we've got versatility and flexibility, we're not limited in what we can do defensively has probably been the biggest factor.
Q. Want to ask you about historical perspective a little bit. When you played Baylor this year, did you come away with saying that Brittney Griner has changed the game of women's basketball? If she has, how has she?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, I would like to think that each generation, I would hope, would have somebody that comes in and changes the game in order for the game to grow. Certainly Brittany because of her skills and her unique abilities has added a dimension to the game that hasn't existed up to this point, or may have, but not to this level. So, yeah, with how easily she scores and how easily she defends with every team. It's like when Kareem Abdul Jabbar was with Lew Alcindor. All of a sudden, the game of college men's basketball was different. Even different than when Will played. Those are the kind of moments that I think push the game forward, and I think Brittany has done and is doing that and will be doing that in the future.
Q. Back on this 8 times with Notre Dame in 12 months, it is extraordinary. I'm just wondering from your perspective, can Notre Dame possibly be much different before game 8 than they were before Game 7? Even when you look at the two rosters with the exception of Bruszewski and Maya, there isn't a lot of change in the personnel except for the freshmen, obviously. Is there a lot to learn between February 27th and Sunday night?
COACH AURIEMMA: I don't know. If you look at the last game of the regular season and then you look at the Big East Championship game, a different Connecticut team and a different Notre Dame team showed up just a week later. You know what happens now three weeks later? I don't know. I don't know. It may be just as simple as if a couple of their guys play really, really well, and a couple of ours don't, they're going to win. If a couple of their guys struggle and a couple of our guys play well, we're going to win. It will not come down to somebody had a strategy going in that was so unique and so different that in those eight games in the last 12 months, no one has seen it, and no one knew. We didn't know what to do with it. I just don't know that you can hide that much from each other. We've seen each other way too much, know too much, have way too much insight into each other. So unless they've been saving something for the last 12 months, to spring it on us Sunday night, I really don't know what more the game is going to balance on other than a couple guys playing great games, which we're not surprised.
Q. This is so unprecedented for a team to play each other so often in such a short period of time. Are you getting into this? You just mentioned that maybe you'd like to play somebody else, but are you enjoying the escalation of this conference rivalry and what it might bring to the game as a whole?
COACH AURIEMMA: I think if you asked Muffet would you rather play anybody but Connecticut? I would hope she would say, yeah, I don't want to play Connecticut again. If you asked me, I don't want to play Notre Dame game. But do I enjoy the fact that the Big East is represented with two teams in the tournament again? Yeah. Is this how rivalries really take shape and grow and become the kind of rivalry that's enhance the game of women's basketball and make it a game that people look forward to every year? Yeah, yeah. For those reasons, I think, sure. I welcome the competition. Does it get to the point where, man, I'd love to see somebody different, yeah, there is a lot of that too. I'd be lying if I said that wasn't there. I'm sure that people in the game itself of college women's basketball are going to look up there and see four teams in the Final Four and say enough already. Can we get some new faces in there? But for every plus I can give you, there is a minus attached to it. Right now the four best teams in the game are playing in Denver. That's what you hope to have.
Q. Did you have a sense where Stefanie Dolson would be, and where she relative to that?
COACH AURIEMMA: With big kids, you're never quite sure. You just don't know. The way Stefanie started the season last year, I thought was typical. I thought we threw her in there, and said sink or swim. We have no other choice, so go get 'em. Then she kind of grew into her role January, February, March, and it was fantastic. Capped it off in the Big East tournament. I thought this year she would start off exactly where she left off. There were times in practice when I thought I can't believe she's made that much practice progress in one year. Then in the middle of the season, she completely lost it. Lost her confidence, lost her mojo, whatever that is. She didn't have it any more. I think that's much more normal. It's not normal to come in as a freshman, start off great, keep playing better and better and better, and come in as a sophomore. Pick up right where you left off. Keep going on the learning curve straight up. You know, so I think what happened to her in January and February maybe set her up to have the kind of March that she's having. She's happy. She's having fun. She's self-confident. Is this where I thought she'd be when we recruited her? This is where I'd hoped she'd be, but you're never quite sure.
Q. Can I ask you an Olympic question? COACH AURIEMMA: Oh, man. That's going to cost you extra whatever they're charging you.
Q. I realize the team hasn't been chosen yet. But if it plays out this way, can you envision playing Tina, Sylvia and Brittany at the same time?
COACH AURIEMMA: Tina, Sylvia and Brittany? Only if they change the rules and you're only allowed to shoot from four feet. If they say any shot made within five feet you get three points for it, yeah. That would probably be a great lineup. Other than that, I don't know. That's going to be a tough combination. That's a tough one. I don't know. That's a tough one.
Q. As someone who when you talk about the game is always in the conversation on a single-season basis for having one of the greatest seasons of all time. You probably have a couple teams in that conversation. How do you react to the idea that if Baylor wins this year, it should rank as one of the greatest teams in the history of women's college basketball, if not the greatest?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, I mean, that's always hard to say. You go 40-0, if they win this whole thing, you go 40-0, nobody's ever gone 40-0. I think 39 has been the most games that anybody's won. So undeniably you immediately have to say wow, you know, that's something that's never been done before. People ask me what is the greatest team of all time? How do you judge that? What do you base it on? If you're going to base it on who won the most games ever in the course of the season, then I would say if Baylor wins these two games, yeah, they'd certainly be considered one of the greatest teams of all time. The greatest team of all time, I don't know. I don't know how you pick that among some of the great teams that have been out there.