U.S. women’s basketball team in Seattle for Olympic tuneup

  • Fri May 11th, 2012 11:44pm
  • Sports

By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer

SEATTLE — USA women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma is used to pressure.

As the head women’s coach at the University of Connecticut, Auriemma has led the Huskies to seven national championships and 19 Big East titles.

At UConn, the Final Four is the expectation every year.

With USA basketball, Auriemma is finding that expectations are just as high.

He learned that two years ago when he coached the U.S. women to a gold medal at the world championships in the Czech Republic.

“I don’t think I have ever been as stressed out or as nervous, anxious, scared to death as I was whenever you are coaching in a medal situation for USA basketball because the expectation level is, ‘Of course we are going to win,’” Auriemma said. “That’s good and bad. … That’s great because we are the United States of America and we are supposed to win. It’s bad because sometimes people don’t appreciate how hard it is to win.”

For the first time as a head coach, Auriemma is going to feel that pressure at the Olympic Games.

The women’s Olympic team is in Seattle this weekend for a minicamp and a 7:30 p.m. exhibition game today against China at KeyArena. It is Auriemma’s first look at his team since the world championships two years ago.

“What we are trying to do is get three days in of just having the team all in one place, making sure that we can all kind of touch base and see where we left off from the world championships,” Auriemma said. “This is a great opportunity to, not only just practice — which is what we need obviously — (but) also to see ourselves in a game situation.”

Because the time the Olympic team has together before the games begin in late July is limited, this weekend is a chance for the players to familiarize themselves with each other.

“It gives us an opportunity to establish a certain style of play,” Auriemma said. “I get with the team and say ‘Look, this is what my goal is for you guys, this is how I want to do it. Let’s see it in action.’ I already know what a couple of the players can do from being around them and at the world championships and I have a perception of what some of the other players can do. But now it’s been two years since I have seen them play and I want to see what the difference is.”

Auriemma’s UConn background does give him a leg up with this team. Of the 12 players on the team, six played their college basketball under Auriemma.

“I never thought I would have an opportunity to coach those six players ever again,” Auriemma said. “When they left you’re like, ‘Wow, there they go.’ And now here you are all this time later, but you’re not really coaching the same player and you’re not really coaching the same person. So it’s exciting for me to see what they’ve become.

“It’s a good feeling. It’s probably like you know, your kids go away from home, go off to college and then they come back and they’re married and they bring their kids and you go, ‘Wow, I’m really proud of what they’ve done.’”

One of the players Auriemma can be proud of is Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird. A decade ago Bird was graduating from UConn. Today, she is a two-time WNBA champion and one of the 15 greatest players in WNBA history.

“It doesn’t seem like 10 years,” Auriemma said. “I can just picture it as yesterday. She’s not the same person she was then … the experience that she has had here, overseas, in the WNBA. I thought she was the best guard in the country, the best player maybe coming out of college back then and she has only gotten better.”

For Auriemma, his journey has caused him to reflect on his own career.

“When I started coaching 30-some years ago I just wanted to have a winning record … now, it’s like, ‘You better bring home a gold medal from London, or else.’ So it’s like, whoa, what’s happened? The ramifications of everything can be quite overwhelming.

“We’re the favorite — no question — but each and every year it gets harder and harder to remain the favorite.”

With the Americans having won gold medals at four straight Olympics, the one thing Auriemma might have to guard against is overconfidence.

“We will talk about (how winning) is not a given, about how you have to earn it,” he said. “Luckily, the 12 players we have that have been chosen have enough pride in themselves that they don’t care about past history.”

Aaron Lommers covers the Seattle Storm for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at alommers@heraldnet.com.