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Connecticut's Auriemma as demanding as ever

STORRS, Conn. - It is not always easy to listen to Geno Auriemma talk about his Connecticut women's basketball team. In fact, there are times when you get the feeling that you are standing with a supermodel in front of a mirror, watching her point out a stray hair here and an imperceptible blemish there.

Take the six-minute video clip from a game against Louisville that Auriemma chose to show to his players before a practice earlier this season. Connecticut had just beaten a Louisville team that was ranked sixth in the country. They had dominated nearly every facet of the game en route to a 93-65 win. Yet during one small stretch of the game - horrors of horrors - Connecticut had come down the floor six times and had not gotten a second shot.

"Everyone is just standing around instead of going for the offensive rebound," Auriemma said, shaking his head. "I know the media and fans think we're perfect, but it's my job to point out that we're not."

The Huskies, however, may be as close to perfection as a team can get. Connecticut heads into the NCAA Tournament looking to become the third Connecticut team and fifth women's basketball team from any school to go through the season undefeated.

Could they possibly be the best team ever, even better than the 2001-03 UConn team that featured Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams? Though it's hard to imagine that anyone could top the accomplishments of that team, it's also hard not to at least open the debate after seeing what this season's group did to its opponents in the regular season.

Connecticut's average margin of victory in its 30-0 regular season was 28 points. Twenty times, the Huskies won by at least 20. They beat all five of their ranked opponents by an average margin of just under 30. Every victory was by a double-digit margin.

If this team has a flaw heading into the tournament, it's that it doesn't have the experience of competing in a close game, which may be one reason that Auriemma is constantly combing game tapes looking for possible imperfections - a blown defensive assignment here, a bad pass there.

"I think we all know that there could be a game in March where if we have a bad five- or six-minute stretch, it will be all over for us," Auriemma said. "That's the attitude that we all have to have going into this thing."

This obsession with perfection is not for everyone. Elena Della Donne, widely considered to be the top high school basketball player in the country last year, committed to the Huskies but left before even playing a game, saying that she was burned out and didn't think she could provide the "the level of commitment" required at Connecticut.

"Coach is going to get the best out of you whether you like it or not," point guard Renee Montgomery said. "I came here because I wanted to be pushed. I wanted to constantly be told how to get better. I just may not always like it when it's happening."

Said Maya Moore: "Coach likes players who are unselfish, who don't have egos. He doesn't have time to deal with egos. His ego is the only one that fits in this program."

After a few years in his program, Auriemma's players get used to his nitpicking ways, reaching a point where they can predict and parody what he is going to say.

"I think at one point during everyone's freshman year, he tells them they're defending like Cher," Montgomery said with a laugh. "To tell you the truth, I don't even know what 'defending like Cher' means. But I know it's not good."

There were some rumors a few years back that Auriemma, who has been at Connecticut since 1985, had mellowed, that after winning five national championships, he no longer was as relentless as he was earlier in his coaching career. Shea Ralph, a first-year assistant who played on the 2000 national championship team, says nothing is further from the truth.

"Working for him every day, I see that that's not the case," Ralph said. "He may not treat some of these players the same as he treated me, because maybe that isn't what he thinks will motivate them. Someone like me, I responded by getting yelled at. He doesn't treat people the same, because people are not the same."

The difference in the players he has had over the years is why Auriemma has problems when people ask him - as they repeatedly do - where this team, if it goes undefeated, would rank against his other undefeated teams.

Initially, he acts like a father who has just been asked to pick his favorite child, as if it's a question he could never possibly answer. But as the season has worn on and he's seen this team get better and better, he admits that he too has started to wonder just how good it is.

Said Auriemma: "At the end of the season, if we are fortunate enough to win a national championship, I'll sit back and see where this group class stacks up ... I'd like to be able to do that."

FANTASTIC FOUR

Connecticut is looking to become only the fifth women's basketball team to go through an NCAA season undefeated. The first four:

Texas 1985-86 34-0

Tennessee 1997-98 39-0

Connecticut 1994-95 34-0

Connecticut 2001-02 39-0

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