Huskies help Sun reach playoffs
Connecticut will return to postseason after two-year absence
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Renee Montgomery just isn't up to spending the postseason as a spectator. So her first two years in the WNBA -- in Minnesota in 2009 and Connecticut in 2010 -- she pretty much emotionally checked out of the league as soon as the regular season ended.
"I never watch a game after my season is over," she said. "I just can't do it."
You could jokingly say it's one of the few ways that playing at UConn didn't prepare Montgomery for the WNBA. The Huskies for a long, long time now have been in the thick of the hunt -- if not winning the whole thing -- in college ball. So going to UConn definitely doesn't get you ready for a season to end before everybody is done playing.
But in most other regards, spending time in Storrs helps you handle what you're going to face as a professional. Several who've had successful careers at UConn have kept up their winning ways in the transition to the WNBA. And this season's Connecticut Sun squad is a textbook example: The team is headed back to the postseason after two years away, and the five former Huskies on the roster have a lot to do with it.
Tina Charles, the 2010 rookie of the year, is one of the leading candidates for 2011 MVP. (Another UConn grad, Maya Moore, seems a lock for rookie of the year this season, playing in Minnesota.)
Starting alongside Charles for the Sun have been Montgomery, Kalana Greene and Asjha Jones. On the bench is Jessica Moore. All won at least one NCAA championship at UConn.
"We play more a motion-style offense at UConn; whoever got open, that's who the play was for," Montgomery said. "That helps you understand the game: how to use screens, how to set them, and who's going to be open when. They built our basketball IQ up so high, so in any situation we can be successful."
OK we know what some of you are thinking, "Oh, great. Another Huskies commercial from ESPN, the worldwide leader in UConn."
Seems like a good time to reiterate that I didn't go to UConn, and I've never lived in Connecticut. In fact, I'm still eminently capable of getting lost on my visits to the state, no matter how many times I've been there.
(And not that it has anything to do with this story, but I will note one thing most Midwesterners can never get used to about New England are "intersections" that have like nine streets feeding into them at bizarre angles. We're almost always on a grid out in Flyover Country.)
This story is not intended to aggravate the UConn-allergic out there, who already might have felt their noses start to twitch and are fighting the urge to yell something like, "But if San Antonio's Danielle Adams had not been hurt, then the rookie of the year award wouldn't be seen as just another preordained ex-Huskies trophy."
Stirring up any "we're sick of UConn" animus is not the intention. (Although we know what the road to hell is paved with, right?) Rather, this is to spotlight one of the intriguing storylines in a WNBA season that has several of them. The UConn connection has been a big part of the Sun's return to the postseason.
Sun coach Mike Thibault has said all along his goal was never to turn the Sun into the WNBA's biggest UConn alumni chapter. At the same time, though, it wouldn't make any sense not to give heavy consideration to players who have both a strong connection to women's basketball fans in the state, but also possess the goods as pro performers.
"I like to take players from winning programs, because they know that's an everyday expectation," Thibault said. "There are high standards.
"I can't speak to what's happening at all colleges. I do see UConn practice more than most. So I know how much individual work players get at their position. That doesn't mean other programs aren't doing it. It's just that because they develop so many players, it gets noticed. It's still a recruiting battle for those players. Then you've got to teach them once you get them."
Now, you'd think if anybody would leap at the opportunity to say, "Oh, yes! Go to UConn, because we can make you a better pro player," it would be Huskies coach Geno Auriemma. Selling UConn is his job.
But Auriemma was actually pragmatic, not peacock-like, when asked about the WNBA success of former Huskies such as Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, Seattle's Sue Bird, Minnesota's Moore and the Sun's Huskies quintet.
"I would say the first thing is, the players that you're talking about that are playing well in the pros are players that were very good in high school," Auriemma said. "They were the best in their age groups. They were already getting a head start coming into college in that they were head and shoulders above most everybody else."
True, but what happens with them once they're in college makes quite a difference. The ex-Huskies all point to specifics of training/expectations at UConn that helped them be more ready for the next level after college.
"Well, if they say that," Auriemma said with his deadpan comic timing, "then it must be true.
"Seriously, one thing is I don't over-coach. I am not trying to manage their every move, and their every dribble. I think we give them a tremendous amount of freedom to think."
As Greene put it, "Basketball is the kind of game where you can't just be a robot. You have to adapt on the fly. That's what we're good at.
"At UConn, we have structure without structure, if that makes sense. He says, 'Do what you see, not just what I tell you to do. I'm not on the court.' He's going to give you these guidelines, but we had a long leash. You're forced to learn."
Which sometimes means practice might take longer than it would have if Auriemma always provided what he thought were the right answers.
"He wants to help you to think for yourself," Greene said. "So there were times in practice, he would just sit there and say, 'You figure it out,' so we could become the problem-solvers. He knows the players are the ones on the floor."
But that also means, as a player, you have to be prepared to be criticized when you make a wrong decision. And you have to be able to count on other players' decision-making.
There are players from many, many college programs -- some of those programs, in fact, not very successful historically -- who achieve great things in the WNBA. But what players from top programs like UConn -- and certainly Tennessee, Stanford and others -- have in common is that they tend to hit the ground running more quickly as professionals.
"It's knowing how to play, although I know that sounds like a simplistic, overused saying," said Kara Lawson, the Tennessee grad who has come mostly off the bench this season as a key player for the Sun. "It's knowing what the right path is, the right read is, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the players you are playing with. Just being able to put each other in advantageous positions on the offensive end of the floor.
"For instance, with Asjha, I didn't play with her much in training camp last year. But once we started playing, it was like it was seamless on a pick-and-roll. There was no breaking-in period. I knew where she was going to go, because she was always going to the right spot. And she knew what I was going to do, because she knew I would make the right read."
Indeed, there is an advantage that players from top college programs have that might seem common-sense obvious, but is probably underappreciated.
"They know how to play with other good players," Auriemma said. "And that's a big factor -- learning how to be on the floor with other players who are as good or better than you are."
Again, we're still at a point that only a handful of college programs consistently recruit all the top talent in the country regardless of where that player is from. It's easier to teach great players to play together when you're getting a bunch of great players.
Yet the talent pool is undoubtedly expanding and spreading. And there's something all competitive programs can take away from the ability of the top programs, such as UConn, to develop pro-ready players.
"Back in the 1980s, the level of players I was recruiting wasn't nearly as good as it is now, " Auriemma said. "But the one thing that we've not deviated from one bit since then is recruiting players who want to be on great teams, not necessarily be great individuals.
"I don't recruit them to be the first pick in the WNBA draft. It's about, 'Come here to try to win a national championship. I'll teach you to do that.' The players that buy into that philosophy become really successful as they move on past college. I have pro coaches who tell me, 'Your players are easy to coach, because they expect to win in a team environment.'"
Whether the Huskies' influence will be enough to take the Sun a long way this WNBA postseason remains to be seen. On Aug. 26, the Sun won a barnburner of a game at home against Phoenix. Then Connecticut lost twice in a row on the road, at Tulsa (egad!) and San Antonio. This past Friday back in Connecticut, the Sun put a 28-point drubbing on Eastern Conference rival Indiana. Sunday, they pounded the pitiful Washington Mystics on the road even harder, by 31.
Regardless of how long the Sun stay alive in the playoffs this year, it's already much better than in 2010.
"Last year, we were having to hope other people lost," Montgomery said. "We needed somebody to mess up to give us a chance to get in the playoffs. To be in control of your own destiny is a nice feeling."
And it's a feeling that she and the other former Huskies are far more used to experiencing.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.