STORRS, Conn. — The walls of the Werth Center practice gym are decorated with banners celebrating the University of Connecticut’s 14 national basketball championships.
The court is littered with All-Americans, gold medalists, a player on a team riding a 63-game win streak, and a coach already enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
The group — collectively known as the USA Basketball Women’s National Team — has run the table in the last five Olympics. And this might be the best group yet.
Warning: Past performance does not guarantee future success.
“The problem is, we’ll never know how good we can be because we never have enough time together,” said Geno Auriemma, coach of both the UConn women and Team USA. “So if somebody gave us a month and said, ‘You get to practice five times a week for a month,’ I’ll tell you, we’d be the greatest team in the history of Olympic basketball.
“But we get three days here, and then they’re going to name the team, and then we’re going to have five days in July, then we have to play in the Olympics.”
Team USA assembled Sunday morning for the start of a three-day Olympic camp. The finalists have combined to win 41 Olympic and World Championship golds. Seventeen of the 25 finalists were able to gather on the UConn campus, across the way from Gampel Pavillion, where Auriemma’s Huskies are still in season.
For many, this version of Team USA was the best team they had ever seen anywhere.
“Definitely, by far,” said Jewell Loyd, who at 22 was one of the youngest players on the court. “What Geno said today was, ‘You never have to take a contested jump shot, because everybody here is willing to make the extra pass.’ You have so many great scorers here that they’re able to create for others. Being part of this team is very awesome.”
They ran half-court sets. They went full court against the UConn men’s scout team. They tried to catch Auriemma’s eye.
“Everybody here wants to go and make the team and be part of history,” Loyd said. “But for me and my mind-set, they know that you can score, they know your strengths. They watch you in the WNBA and overseas, so here you got to come in and just do what you do. If you shoot, that’s what you do. If you make other people look better, that’s what you do. You just come in knowing your role.”
Not many of these players have been cut before. But not everyone on the court is going to Rio de Janeiro. And there are eight other finalists in the mix.
“I’ve just got to come in confident and know that the committee is going to make the best decision for the team, no matter what it is,” said guard Danielle Robinson.
“Coach talked about that you’re not going to do the same things on this team as you are going to do in the WNBA or internationally. Obviously you have to come in with a different mind-set. I need to click with other people and I need to learn how to play with other people and I’m not going to be the star.”
Watch: Danielle Robinson on playing for Team USA
Robinson, 26, hasn’t been on a national team since the 2009 World University Games. Nnemkadi Ogwumike, 25, has made four, including the 2014 World Championships team.
“The first thing Coach told us before practice was ‘This isn’t a tryout.’ He told us to just come in here [and have] another USA ball experience,” said Ogwumike, a 6-foot-2-inch forward. “I thought that was very interesting because everyone comes in here thinking ‘I got to try to make the team.’
“I think you have to come in with a kind of singular perspective: Don’t look too far back, don’t look too far ahead. Obviously, Rio’s ahead of us, but we have to focus on what we have to do now in these three days, and that’s develop some chemistry and play the best that you can.”
On the court, Auriemma occasionally stopped play to reiterate X’s and O’s, guiding players through steps to show the advantages of a cut or a pick or an extra pass. The players switched in and out, like any team in reversible jerseys, so they could run Red vs. White — sometimes with three-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird (UConn, Class of 2002), sometimes with Olympic hopeful Breanna Stewart (UConn, Class of 2016).
The full-court play was sloppy, as can be expected for a new group. Plenty of passes went sailing out of bounds, saying as much about unfamiliarity as it did about showing the staff that they could share the ball.
On a court with this much talent, it was hard to stand out. Unless you were 6-8 and the floor leader in tattoos.
Brittney Griner, now 25, was an Olympic finalist four years ago. She’s itching to make it, just like everyone else.
“USA, we shoot for gold every time, we win, and I want to keep that tradition alive,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to getting [to Rio] and taking it all in. I’m like a little kid in a candy store right now.
“I wouldn’t want to be on the committee that has to pick [the Olympic team]. Anybody who doesn’t make it, there would be great valid points as to why they should be. It’s going to be tough.”
She added with a laugh, “But I think I have a height advantage.”
The mystery of camp for Auriemma is not what the players can do, but how the pieces fit.
“It’s basically getting a bunch of people together to reinforce some things that we already do and to get people into the mix that might not be really in the mix for this year’s team, but the World Championships are two years from now,’’ he said.
“They’re all exactly what I’d thought they’d be. Now, as we go on to Day 2 and Day 3 and things start to heat up a little bit and players start to get a little tired, you’ll see some people start separating themselves.”
For the players, there’s only so much that can be done to make their case.
“It’s like I tell people, there are 25 finalists, but I feel like any combination of 25 people could go, so you never know,” said Robinson. “You always have to stay ready because injuries happen, people get sick, things happen.”