March 30, 2024 

Portland notebook: Geno Auriemma speaks on Pac-12, conference realignment

Plus, Lindsay Gottlieb and Nicki Collen discuss their experience coaching in the pros

PORTLAND, Ore. — Geno Auriemma knows a thing or a few about changing conferences.

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From 1985 to 2013, the UConn head coach navigated his team through the BIG EAST Conference. In 2013, UConn moved into the American Athletic Conference as the BIG EAST imploded. The Huskies would spend seven years in the AAC, traveling as far as Texas and Oklahoma to play conference games.

The BIG EAST was born again in 2020, and the Huskies are now back home.

Once the NCAA Tournament is over, the five Pac-12 teams that made the Sweet 16 will disperse to four conferences. Stanford is headed to the ACC (with Cal). USC and UCLA (along with Oregon and Washington) are going to the Big Ten. Colorado is going to the Big 12 (along with Utah, Arizona and Arizona State). And Oregon State will join the West Coast Conference with Washington State while those two schools figure out their future.

On Friday, Auriemma chronicled his team’s transitions through the past 10 years.

“The first transition was just more people coming into the conference; we didn’t have to go anywhere,” Auriemma said of the BIG EAST. “And then, through no fault of our own, it just broke, and half went one way and half went the other. We ended up in a conference that obviously didn’t suit us. But there was nothing we could do about it.

“It was what it was and you tell your players that you are still playing at UConn, you just happen to be playing a different schedule.”

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When the Huskies returned to the BIG EAST, none of the players knew anything about their new/old conference. The biggest impact, Auriemma said, was on coaches and fans who were happy to be back.
Auriemma, speaking on whether he would have any advice for the transitioning Pac-12 teams, credited players for resilience.

“They just want to play,” Auriemma said.

But he acknowledged the significance of the Pac-12’s shake-up.

“This time, for teams it’s traumatic and it might be crashing your program, relative to back when we had to do it,” Auriemma said. “It hurt.”

Then came a dose of Auriemma’s sarcasm.

“But everybody is happy, right? Everybody is making the money they want to make and everybody’s doing it in the best interest of the student-athlete?” he said. “So I’m sure at the end of the day, student-athletes will just have to suck it up and deal with it.”

Auriemma said he is disappointed both in the end of the Pac-12 in its current form and “in a lot of the things that are happening in college sports.”

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“I’m disappointed in the adults making these decisions, that they couldn’t be smart enough to figure out how to separate football from everything else and have their own deal, which is what everybody wants anyway,” Auriemma said. “So I think a lot of people get thrown into a situation they don’t want to be in just to satisfy the one entity that wants it. So it is what it is. I mean, you know we’re not going to change it. It’s not going to go away. But let’s just stop saying [it’s for the] welfare of the student-athletes.”

With that, Auriemma ducked into another interview session. His third-seeded Huskies will play seventh-seeded Duke in the Sweet 16 on Saturday.

The pro lens

No. 1 seed USC and No. 5 seed Baylor will also meet in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb and Baylor head coach Nicki Collen each bring professional experience to their high-profile college coaching roles. Gottlieb spent two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers as an assistant, becoming the first major college coach to go to the NBA after previously coaching at Cal. Collen spent three seasons as the head coach of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.

Those experiences have deeply informed the way they coach their teams.

“I think the W was really good for me in general,” Collen said. “It’s a league where you have to scheme against the best game in and game out. … It’s always a chess match from one game to the next. It’s the same concept of having to out-scheme, outthink, out-coach, outwork and really in a lot of ways convince your players what will work.”

That is certainly easier with the WNBA on your coaching resume.

Gottlieb’s experience with the Cavaliers laid the groundwork for her ability to connect with a player like JuJu Watkins, who came in pro ready, and her ability to see the women’s game more holistically. “I don’t think women’s basketball has just arrived recently,” she said. “I think the coverage and the eyes on it have arrived recently.

“I try with our players to put them on a platform to be their best selves. It’s exciting in that sense because people get to see their gifts and talents on the court.”

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More Ivy talk

With so much attention on USC’s three Ivy League grad transfersMcKenzie Forbes, Kayla Padilla and Kaitlyn Davis — Gottlieb was asked whether she thought that Ivy League schools should allow players a graduate season.

“I think it’s the best rule in the history of rules,” Gottlieb said, smiling. “No, just kidding.”

Gottlieb graduated from Brown, an Ivy League school. She said she understands the long-standing philosophy.

“I think the idea is you are in college for four years, like the athletic opportunities don’t outlast your education there,” Gottlieb said. “That league obviously maintains a different kind of philosophical barometer than anyone else.”

She believes in the benefit of players getting to experience something different while earning a graduate degree.

Forbes said she thinks the Ivy League should allow graduate students to play, but she acknowledged that “it’s been a cool experience for those of us who have that extra year to explore other options.”

Related reading: Kayla Padilla is the floor leader USC needed

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Baylor’s momentum returns

Entering Saturday’s game, Baylor is 26-7 overall and went 12-6 in conference play. But in a stretch from Jan. 22 to Feb. 14, the Bears alternated wins and losses before reeling off eight wins in their last nine games.

Senior guard Sarah Andrews said that she is glad that the Bears learned their lessons during that bumpy stretch. “I’m starting to see the team that came out and went 13-0” to start the season, she said.

The Bears beat No. 12 seed Vanderbilt and No. 4 seed Virginia Tech in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Stathead Stat of the Week

South Carolina averaged 46.3 rebounds per game this year. Since 1988, only two teams that won the national championship have averaged more boards per game: 1988 Louisiana Tech and 1995 UConn.

Stathead is your all-access pass to the Basketball and College Basketball Reference databases. Our discovery tools are built for women’s basketball fans like you. Answer your questions in a matter of seconds.

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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