March Madness: The secret to UConn’s incredible win streak

Here’s a dirty little secret: UConn has lost this season. Plenty of times, actually. Last year, too, and every season prior. If head coach Geno Auriemma feels his starting five players aren’t being challenged enough in practice, he’ll add a player to the other team and go five on six. If his starters are still winning, he’ll add yet another or maybe even two. So the Huskies actually do lose, almost daily, in practice, which helps them keep winning when it matters the most.

Connecticut enters this Friday’s Final Four having won 111 games in a row—the longest streak in college basketball history. Other teams, in basketball and other sports, across all divisions and levels, have had similar runs. Excelle Sports reached out to players and coaches who have enjoyed comparable streaks to get the inside perspective on what it takes to win … and win … and win …

Strategic nitpicking

The natural enemy of success is complacency. Motivating a team that doesn’t lose—and often wins by huge margins—takes creativity. If you watched UConn’s 90–52 regional final victory over Oregon on Monday, you heard Auriemma lambast forward Napheesa Collier’s defense during in-game and post-game interviews. Collier, who had been named an All-American earlier that day, finished the game with 28 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and two steals. No matter. Auriemma was strategically nitpicking, a common method among successful coaches.

[More from Excelle Sports: Is UConn’s dominance bad for women’s basketball?]

Last weekend, another basketball team also quietly continued its own streak when the North Central boys’ high school varsity program in Powers, Mich. won the state title for its 83rd straight victory. Like Connecticut, North Central wins many of its games in blowout fashion.

“Given that we never lost, we had to be critical when scouting ourselves, so when it came time to play against better competition, those weaknesses weren’t magnified,” North Central head coach Adam Mercier told Excelle Sports. “That was probably the most difficult thing, to be critical of a team that was winning by 20, 30 points.”

Auriemma has mastered this. “Practices are very humbling,” former UConn guard Kalana Greene, who was played on two undefeated Huskies teams in 2009 and 2010, told Excelle Sports. “No matter how good you think you are, no matter the win streak, you’ll go to practice the next day and Coach will find a way to make you feel like you’re one of the worst players.”

Auriemma doesn’t do this to demean, but to inspire growth. Individual miscues during games are pointed out on film—and the coach seems to always find plenty, even in 40-point victories.

Of course, no matter how you break down a win, it’s still a win. That’s why Auriemma and other coaches in similar positions make sure their players lose in practice. Greene remembers a drill in which five players had to break an eight-player press—and even a tipped pass counted as a turnover. The goal of these kinds of drills is simple: Make practice so hard that games seem easy.

At the University of North Carolina, head women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance calls it the “competitive cauldron.” Dorrance’s program has claimed 21 NCAA championships in the 35-year history of the event and once went 101 straight games without a loss under his leadership. He says he has always admired Auriemma from afar, often sending video clips of the UConn coach to his players. Dorrance even borrowed a UConn drill in which a defensive player must get a certain number of consecutive stops, one-on-one, in order to sub out. It’s unforgiving, but gets to the core of winning and losing.

[More from Excelle Sports: How one coach built the best women’s soccer team in history]

“None of the players are feeling warm and fuzzy during that training environment,” Dorrance told Excelle Sports, adding that the drill’s purpose is to inspire players to “fight even harder to make sure it doesn’t happen on game day.”

Subtle adjustments

Hard work is not enough. The best programs constantly adapt, whether to the evolution of the game, various changes in personnel or how their opponents attack them. To butcher a famous saying: If it ain’t broke, break it a little and put it back together even better than before.

Losing typically forces a coach’s hand. Perpetual winning can breed a stagnant culture, and that’s a problem.

“Unless you’re regularly changing what you’re doing, you’re regressing,” Dorrance said.

To the outside observer, Auriemma and UConn have changed very little. Assistant coach Chris Dailey has been with Auriemma for all 32 of the latter’s seasons at the school; assistant coach Shea Ralph joined the staff in 2008. Given this stability in coaching staff, former Huskies say the playbook hasn’t changed much.

“This boggles my mind, but I still see UConn running the same plays as when I was there,” Meghan Gardler, a UConn guard from 2007 to 2010, told Excelle Sports.

Gardler’s assessment isn’t wrong, but that’s also because UConn doesn’t have many set plays. The offense is read-based—read what the defense gives you and react accordingly. It takes smart players drilled incessantly on the multitude of counters. Defensively, the Huskies want to dictate what happens, and they usually succeed. UConn is first in the country in field goal percentage and 10th in defensive field goal percentage.

Tweaks, not overhauls, are preferred. It’s a belief shared by Larry Kehres, the former football coach at Division III power Mount Union, a program that won an NCAA-best 55 straight games from 2000 to 2003.

“If the changes are subtle enough that they’re not obvious, they’re very effective changes,” Kehres told Excelle Sports.

Plays are altered just enough to keep the opponent guessing. Core values remain intact, but a smart program stays on the cutting edge when it comes to aspects such as scouting and player health. Auriemma, for example, brought in a new strength and conditioning coach a decade ago who completely revamped the Huskies’ training regimen.

One thing that hasn’t changed is UConn’s pre-game meal. For as long as anyone can remember, it has been grilled chicken, a baked potato, salad, pasta and fruit. Much like the other elements of Connecticut’s preparation, this menu remains the same regardless of opponent or stage.

“When you get to the Final Four, you’ve already done the same routine 40 times before,” Gardler said. “It seems like just another game.”

One game at a time

One hundred eleven straight wins. Ten consecutive Final Fours. Four national championships in a row. As much as those jaw-dropping numbers are discussed outside the UConn program, they’re never mentioned within. That’s consistent with the experiences of the other “streakers” interviewed for this story.

Larry Farmer played for Coach John Wooden’s men’s basketball team at UCLA from 1971 to 1973, winning the national championship all three seasons and losing just one game ever. As is the case with the Huskies, fans and the media made a big deal of UCLA’s dominance. But specific numbers were never mentioned at practice, in the locker room or in pre-game speeches.

“Coach Wooden was always very good at keeping us in the moment and looking to the next game but not beyond that,” Farmer told Excelle Sports. “We never got caught up in how many games we won. Winning that next one was our focus.”

Coaches and players obviously have to talk about the streak with the media, but teams don’t discuss the matter internally. This is not intended to dismiss the achievement, but because they realize what’s important.

Auriemma has said the three keys to Connecticut’s success have been 1) the culture, which incoming players have to live up to; 2) talented players; and 3) holding those players accountable all the time. It’s that final ingredient that is most difficult for other programs to replicate.

There is one basketball team that blows UConn’s records off the court. The Harlem Globetrotters currently own a 4,311-game win streak. When reached for a comment, head coach “Sweet” Lou Dunbar marveled at what Auriemma has built and wished the Huskies luck on Friday in Dallas, where they’ll face Mississippi State.

Then Dunbar added, “We hope that they don’t challenge us to a game!”

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to Excelle Sports. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn

Jump To Comments
  • Kamal Hillard

    Looking forward to seeing the Cult of Champions led by Coaching Gurus Auriemma & Chris Daily win the 5th straight championship & 113 consecutive victories would be an unbelievable historical achievement go Huskies!