As practice was concluding Thursday afternoon, the players were swarming.
The UConn women's basketball team, a roster with the best offensive skill in the country, was flexing its defensive muscle. From the All-Americans to the newcomers, they were aggressive and relentless.
Geno Auriemma, standing on the side of the floor, nodded.
"Good...good," the notoriously demanding coach said.
It's been good for the past few weeks, as the Huskies run through day after day of practice in preparation for the first exhibition game Wednesday. UConn hosts Division II Fort Hays at the XL Center in the first dress rehearsal for the No. 1 team in the country.
UConn earned the top spot in the USA Today Coaches poll released Thursday and the Huskies will almost certainly be No. 1 in the Associated Press poll unveiled next week. On paper, UConn is the deepest and most talented team in the country -- the Huskies will start three All-Americans (Katie Lou Samuelson, Gabby Williams, Napheesa Collier) and 6-foot-6 transfer Azura Stevens is a gifted offensive player.
But what has always been a hallmark of Auriemma's team is defense. And there were times during last season when Auriemma bemoaned the defensive deficiencies of his roster, even as the Huskies were marching through the schedule unbeaten until the Final Four.
"We've talked a lot about having a certain aggressive mentality," Auriemma said. "Trying to create some stuff off our defense, like we have. We're a little bit older and I think a little bit smarter a team. Maybe we can do some things that we haven't done in the past."
With Kia Nurse in the backcourt, UConn has an energetic defender on the perimeter. Williams, who occupied the post last season, brings athleticism and instincts, evolving into an elite defender all over the court.
Last season, Auriemma prodded Samuelson and Collier to upgrade their defense. Each has been more engaged in practice this fall, Auriemma recently said.
"The natural progression for some of these guys, there's a certain aggressiveness that we have to have," Auriemma said. "We know what's in store for us. We know what kind of schedule we have. We know who we're playing."
The Huskies will face six of the top 10 teams in the USA Today poll. The schedule outside of the American Athletic Conference is demanding, just as it has been in the past.
But UConn seems to be built for all opponents, both offensively and defensively. Sophomore Crystal Dangerfield brings quickness to shadow even the most skilled guards and 6-2 transfer Batouly Camara -- who is currently sidelined with a bruised knee -- is an aggressive, physical defender in the paint.
Stevens, though, is still navigating the defensive demands.
"Even without breaking a sweat, she's capable of getting 25 [points] every night," Auriemma said. "I mean, easy. Easy. Which will probably put her just about one or two short of what her man's going to get. So we're trying to fix the other part."
This article is written by Paul Doyle from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.