Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Guru's NCAA Report: Auriemma Cites McGraw's Common Roots

(Guru's Note. There is a notebook under this. You know the drill. In melgreenberg.com click mel's blog on the left to get to the entire list of new and old offerings.) -- Mel

By Mel Greenberg

Because Connecticut and Notre Dame will be meeting a fourth time this season on Sunday night at the NCAA Women’s Final Four at Conseco Fieldhouse there may be a tendency to apply a Big East conference label to the second national semifinal game after Stanford and rookie Texas A&M meet in the opener.

But in terms of common backgrounds of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw the meeting between the Huskies and Irish can also be called the Philadelphia semifinal.

Both have roots to the City of Brotherly Love and St. Joseph’s University.

Auriemma grew up in Norristown just to the northwest of the city and made his debut in the women’s game as a one-year assistant at St. Joseph’s to his friend Jim Foster, who now coaches Ohio State.

McGraw starred for the Hawks. Born in Pottsville, which is in the coal region of the Keystone State, her formal years were spent growing up in West Chester, which is the town of the university by the same name from which Auriemma got his degree.

She replaced Auriemma on Foster’s staff and of course went on to a successful head-coaching career, which will be recognized in June when McGraw is inducted to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.

And to segue off of that location, if not for the second-seeded Irish’s upset of top-seeded Tennessee Monday night in the Dayton Regional final, Wednesday’s Final Four preview teleconference conducted by the NCAA might have otherwise been a little cantankerous considering the Lady Vols and Connecticut have not played since 2007 when Tennessee’s Pat Summitt cancelled the nationally-followed series for reasons she has never publicly revealed.

So instead of angst, there was some good-natured ribbing from Auriemma, especially off the fact that the two schools will meet a fourth time this season on Sunday night.

“I was reading somewhere where (Baylor coach) Kim (Mulkey) was saying there was a conspiracy to try to put us and Tennessee together; that the NCAA had something up their sleeve, that’s why they matched us in the semifinals if we would win and they would win, but I really think the conspiracy was started by Muffet,” Auriemma said.

“I think she knew that after the way they played us those three times (all won by UConn), she wanted another crack at it. So if you want to blame anybody for us playing four times, I think it’s Muffet’s fault.”

Later, when asked to compare the keys to the game for both sides, Auriemma was back at it again:

“I think this is all about me and Muffet. I think this is personal, I mean after all those three games our teams are evenly matched,” Auriemma responded in his trademark wit. “II think this is about me and Muffett, what she’s going to wear, what I’m going to wear, whether she can defend me in the post or whether or not, you know, her high heels, she’s going to stab me in the eye with one of them.

“I think this is a personal vendetta between the two of us. We’re both from Philly. Both products from the same area. And this is a grudge match that goes way, way back between me and her.”

After getting serious for a bit in citing all of Notre Dame’s strengths – balance, the play of Devereaux Peters and Natalie Novosel and the extra leadership from sophomore point guard Skylar Diggins – Auriemma slipped back into his standup act.

“You know, trying to find weaknesses in their game, they shoot it well from the perimeter. They knock you around inside, They’re very physical,” Auriemma continued.

“We have to find a way to attack those green fingernails, though. They’re a little bit of a problem for me. Other than that, I don’t see a lot of weaknesses on their team.”

Maya Moore’s Place In The Women’s Universe

The number one side story of this weekend’s Women’s Final Four is the last collegiate ride of Connecticut senior Maya Moore, who Wednesday picked up the first of what is expected to be a sweep of national player of the year honors – this one from the United States Basketball Writers Association.

Coaches on the NCAA phone call were asked to assess Moore’s career in the history of the women’s game.

“I think she is the very best (of all time),” Notre Dame’s McGraw said. “I don’t think there’s anybody better. I think she is an amazing player in every facet of the game. I think she works extremely hard. She’s really well respected.

“She’s a great student. I think when you look at the overall package, I don’t think there’s ever been a player that’s better than her.”

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who has had to coach several of the game’s greats on her own Cardinal team and in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, besides coaching against other superstars, noted:

“I definitely think she is one of the greatest college female players. I think she has great talent. But part of what makes her great is also the system she plays in,” VanDerveer explained.

“I credit Geno for that, and the players she’s played with. I think she’s always going to be a very good team player. I think it’s partly what she does, but also the environment she’s in and the team that she plays on.

“When I look at a player like that – to me one of the best players I’ve ever seen ins (former USC star) Cheryl Miller. She just on any team is going to be a standout. Maya Moore on any team would be a standout. But I think she’s even more effective because of the system that she’s in.”

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, whose second-seeded Aggies are in their first finals after upsetting top-seeded Baylor in the Dallas Regional final, was not asked to comment on Moore, but Auriemma certainly was about his own player whom he’ll undoubtedly will coach next year in the Olympics at the 2012 London games in England.

Auriemma, of course, has already had several great stars who also became Olympians in Sue Bird of the WNBA-defending champion Seattle Storm and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi, who is currently acclaimed as the world’s top women’s star.

The Connecticut coach was asked if it was already appropriate to list Moore among some of the names that were alluded to on the call and are mentioned in this blog report.

“Well, think back to the people you’ve named,” Auriemma said. “How many of them accomplished in college what Maya did?

“So that answers the question. If you mentioned five names to me, I don’t care which five names you name, other than Diana, you’d be hard pressed to find somebody that went to four Final Fours, scored 3,000 posts, was First-Team All-American four years in a row and led a team of a bunch of young people that have no other All-Americans to the Final Four and played a schedule that we played and won as many games as we did and played as well as she did in all those games.

“You would say, `Where does she fit in among the great ones?’ Should we mention her name? I would say you’re not going to be able to mention a lot of names before you get to her name. For sure I’m certain of that.”

Outnumbered But Not Outgunned

This season Connecticut has been able to thrive despite playing with a reduced bench because of injuries and after two months, the departure of freshman post player Samarie Walker to Kentucky.

Auriemma and McGraw, who had a similar low-numbers roster when Notre Dame won the 2001 NCAA title, were asked about advantages and disadvantages coaching in that situation.

“There are advantages to having a thin bench, for one game, for one-half,” Auriemma said. “Having to do that for two months, that starts to wear on you if you are not careful.

“The advantages I think are such that I think offensively you can get into a flow that maybe you can’t get into if you’re playing eight, nine players.

“I think players get a chane to play through some mistakes, you know, some stretches of the game where things aren’t going their way. You might have a tendency to take them out, and they may end up never getting a feel for the game. So there is some benefit, no question about it.”

But Auriemma also pointed out the down side of the situation.

“I wouldn’t want to be in that situation, though. I mean, I’m not thrilled about going out there with six players that I know that I can count on.

“But at the same time you can’t worry about it, and it is what it is. But if I had my druthers, I’d rather have eight.”

McGraw also spoke about the positives of the reduced roster.

“You know, I don’t think it’s really a huge disadvantage to only have six players,” she said. “I think that your team has great chemistry. I think that everybody that’s on the floor has played together for a significant amount of minutes. You don’t ever look out and go, `Here’s a lineup we haven’t worked on much because we’re down into the bench a little deeper than we normally go.’

“So I think in that way – our championship team in 2001, we played six people. We’ve had teams where we’ve only had a few options, and I think it kind of makes you stronger. You get in great shape. If you can stay out of foul trouble,I t’s really not as big a disadvantage as people think.”

The Wisdom of Blair

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, who grew up in the Lone Star State, was in one Women’s Final Four back in 1998 when his ninth-seeded Arkansas team upset second-seeded Duke and was the beneficiary along the way of the famous 16th-seeded Harvard upsetting No. 1 Stanford in the first round after VanDerveer’s Cardinal lost two starters following the revealing of the bracket, which was done back then on Selection Sunday.

Here are a couple of pearls from Blair, who was an assistant coach on Louisiana Tech’s national champions – he coached Baylor’s Mulkey – and also was a head coach at Stephen F. Austin, reviving that program a bit taking over several years after the late Hall of Famer Sue Gunter moved on to LSU.

On Playing Defense: “I don’t know this for a fact, but somebody check, has anybody ever held four opponents under 50 points in the NCAA Tournament to get here (at the Final Four)?

“I think that says a lot about our team. It’s the best offensive team that we’ve ever had. But our defense has not been very good as what it’s been in the past but in the NCAA tournament I hope we’re peaking at the right time, because we’ve played very good defense in our last four ballgames.”

On Stanford’s Final Four Experience (4th straight and 10th overall): “The experience factor is in age, and I’m older than Tara and I’m going to use that to my advantage.”

On VanDerveer’s Recruiting Players Out Of Texas: “I just hope she stays out of Texas. And, shoot, she’s got another point guard coming from Texas next year. She needs to start paying taxes down here or at least let me starting coming up there (to northern California in the Bay Area).

“If I can’t get players, let me get some of that stock in some of those tech companies around Palo Alto.”

Mirror Mirror on The Team

Three of the Final Four coaches were asked in what ways their respective teams reflect their personalities as coaches. It could be time ran out before the same individual could pose the same thought to Stanford’s VanDerveer.

Blair’s response: “Oh, shoot. If I had to put myself as a coach, I would probably be the John Madden of basketball, I guess. I’m not your (former Louisiana Tech coach) Leon Barmore, Pat Summitt or Geno Auriemma. The guy with the great basketball background that had a little bit of game. I didn’t have much game. I sat on the bench in basketball and I played baseball.

“And I’ve had to learn the game through the girls that I’ve had the opportunity to coach. So I’m constantly learning by TV. I’ve got a legal pad next to me watching all those late night games on the West Coast, copying down. I’m an offensive coach. I believe in pressure. Pressure defense, pressure offense, attack mode.”

Auriemma’s answer: “This team, not much. I don’t have a lot in common with the players on this team, to be honest with you. We get along great and I love every one of them. They’re all – great, great kids that I enjoy spending time with.

“Bu you know, Kelly Faris, Maya Moore, even Bria (Hartley), they’re very quiet kids, very quiet, very reserved in so many ways. Stefanie (Dolson) is a little more outgoing. But this team is pretty low key. Maybe that’s why they haven’t been affected by a lot of this stuff that’s happened to them this year, the (90-game win) streak, the thin banks, the unbelievably difficult schedule, you name it.

“They’re very low key. They’re not highly emotional. So we play off each other pretty well. They calm me down and I get them riled up every once in a while. I think it’s a good combination.”

Muffet McGraw: “I think they reflect Becca Bruszewski, our captain. I think we’re all extremely competitive. I think our entire staff and players all share that. We’re fighters, we’re competitive, we’re intense, we want to win.

“But this team is much looser than any team I’ve ever had, which is not really a reflection of my personality. I think they’re outgoing and have fun, and they’re very, very boisterous and passionate on the court. They show their emotions on the court in a way that’s a lot different than the teams we’ve had in the past that were a little more businesslike.”

-- Mel

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