STORRS - There were no banners inside Gampel Pavilion the last time coach Geno Auriemma had to incorporate six newcomers into his UConn women’s basketball team.
In 1988, the Huskies had not won a league or national championship. Of course, then there was no Gampel Pavilion either. But that fall six freshmen - Debbie Baer, Wendy Davis, Meghan Pattyson, Pam Rothfuss, Shannon Saunders, and Stacey Wetzel - joined the Huskies and five months later they were Big East champs for the first time.
A lot has happened and a lot has changed in 29 years. This season, Auriemma returns four starters, including All-Americans Gabby Williams, Napheesa Collier, and Katie Lou Samuelson, from a 36-1 squad that advanced to the program’s record 10th straight Final Four. The Huskies’ only loss came in their last outing as their 111-game winning streak and four-year reign as NCAA champ ended.
Helping them start anew are six newcomers - four freshmen and two other players who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. And they get a head start. After a week of workouts on campus here, they began an 11-day tour of Italy that will include playing four exhibition games.
“It’s really big because it’s giving us a chance to be able to practice now,” Samuelson said. “The freshmen get a chance to see what practice is like before it actually happens in preseason.
“We have a lot of new players right now, and it’s going to be a lot to try to figure out how we’ll play together and how we all need to work together. It will be really important for us to test that out before we actually play real games. This helps us figure that all out and then go over there and have some fun and play as hard as we can.”
UConn will play a pair of games against the Netherlands national team in Rome on Monday and Tuesday, and face an Italian All-Star team on Friday in Vicenza. The final exhibition is Aug. 20 against Celje.
The Huskies’ tour, that also includes stops in Florence, Trieste and Venice, ends three days later when they fly back to the United States.
“I wish we had this last year,” UConn sophomore Crystal Dangerfield said. “It should help a lot just understanding what this is really going to be like. It’s going to be that much harder when we get into preseason, but, for the freshmen, just being able to basically dip their toes in the water and see what this is all about will be important.”
Auriemma, who was born in Montella, Italy, will be making his third trip to his native country this summer. Dangerfield and freshman Megan Walker spent two weeks there with the U-19 national team playing in the world championships.
The Huskies’ trip will be their fifth visit to Europe since 1994.
“You try to set up your European trips because you have a lot of players coming back and it’s easy and you just need to incorporate a few players, or you have a lot of new faces that haven’t played,” Auriemma said. “In this case it’s a little bit of both. We have a great nucleus returning, and we have six new players. So it has all the ingredients of what you look for when you are trying to put together a trip.”
Transfers Azura Stevens and Batouly Camara were able to practice with the Huskies as they sat out games last year. But for freshmen Walker, Mikayla Coombs, Lexi Gordon, and Andra Espinoza-Hunter, this past week was their first under the watchful eyes of Auriemma and his staff.
Williams liked what she saw.
“I think we’ve gotten better every day and I think we’ll keep growing,” Williams said. “I don’t know if there is ever really a moment when things kind of magically fall into place, but I think we’ll find that rhythm later when we start playing games.
“This will be a good test for us. Hopefully we can get on a direction and follow through on it. The fact that we get to set that tone early this year is really good for us.”
UConn has been without Kia Nurse this week and began the trip without the senior guard as she plays for Team Canada in the FIBA AmeriCup 2017 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“This week has been exactly what every other first week of practice looks like,” Auriemma said. “Some good, some not so good, some really good, some really bad. I guess that’s to be expected.”
Once the Huskies get back from Italy, they will really get down to work.
Freshman orientation is set for Aug. 25 and the first day of fall semester classes is Aug. 28. Preseason workouts begin that week to prepare for the start of official practice in mid-October. The regular season opener against Stanford at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, is Nov. 12.
Auriemma hopes he has a better and closer team in 10 days than he has now.
“That comes on its own,” Auriemma said. “Some groups, no matter what you do, they are never going to get the kind of chemistry that you need to have a really good team. Some groups, you don’t have to do anything because they already have it. This group already has a pretty good feel for each other.
“What is going to be the big divider is the level of play between the returnees and the new players. It’s a huge gap. What ends up happening is that you hope that little by little the gap narrows. But as far as people starting to figure each other out and everybody starting to get a feel, we might get a sense for who the young guys are, what their makeup is and what they’re all about. It will help to find out those things in August that you normally wouldn’t find out until November.”