It’s into the third hour of a University of Connecticut women’s basketball practice and coach Geno Auriemma isn’t happy. A practice-squad player, an unheralded sophomore, keeps hitting jump shots over Maya Moore, the Huskies’ three-time All-American senior.
“Show us exactly what happened,” Auriemma demands. “How did he get a jumper?”
That’s right, he. The top-ranked team from Storrs, Connecticut, which had its record winning streak snapped at 90 games this season, is among two-thirds of Division I women’s basketball programs that practice against male players, according to a 2007 National Collegiate Athletic Association survey.
Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history, has had her University of Tennessee women’s teams practice against men since she was hired in 1974. Duke, Michigan and UCLA also go against male lineups, as do about half of Women’s National Basketball Association squads, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its March 14 issue.
The idea spread to UConn before Auriemma’s first national championship in 1995, when Greg Yeomans, who later walked onto the men’s team, and some friends came to a practice. Auriemma said that since then, men have become “one of the most important aspects of our program.”
Men with competitive basketball backgrounds are generally bigger, stronger and faster than women. Practicing against them is like wearing ankle weights when running.
“As far as the speed and the strength, you’re not going to find teams better,” Moore says. “We have to have something extra to keep up with them.”
The men also are the managerial dream of expendable labor for about 15 hours each week.
“We don’t have to be worried about whether they are going to be ready to play,” says Auriemma. “We just do whatever we want with them, and they love it. You tell them to play defense for an hour, they play.”
NCAA rules prohibit the men from receiving financial assistance for participating, so the most they are allowed to get is practice apparel. At UConn, where Nike Inc. is spending $46 million over 10 years to outfit teams, the 15 members get shoes, Dri-FIT undershirts, socks, shorts, jerseys and the occasional sweatsuit and jacket.
They also get their basketball fix, which otherwise might have gone unmet once they got to college and weren’t good enough for the men’s team.
‘Go Through Withdrawal’
“Playing basketball your whole life and then coming to a Division I school where you’re not a Division I basketball player, you sort of go through withdrawal,” says senior Stephen Mahier. “You can play pickup all you want, but being part of a team is something that I really miss.”
UConn wants its practice squad to feel like a team. Matt Gade, a 24-year-old graduate student and former practice player, took over the squad in 2009.
“When I started it was kind of a word-of-mouth thing,” he says. “It was pretty much a bunch of bums.”
The players wore their own gear and showed up sporadically. Gade and women’s assistant coach Shea Ralph now scout intramural games and bring in prospects for preseason workouts.
Auriemma has final oversight and says he looks for “guys that don’t have an ego -- guys who don’t come out here and then go home and say, ‘Hey, I blocked Maya Moore’s shot five times.’”
Also out of the question is some of the physical play associated with the men’s game. Shot blocking, for instance, is limited since few of UConn’s opponents feature defenders who do it often. For the most part, the men compete with the women on level terms.
“If one of them hits me in the mouth or something, it’s on,” Moore says.
Equality goes right down to the exchange of congratulatory pats on the butt after good plays.
The men and women hang out around campus. None of the men would acknowledge any romances.
“Probably a lot of guys on the practice team wish,” says Mahier.
The men do get a chance to bask in reflected glory of a program that has won seven national titles. Last April, during the women’s Final Four in San Antonio, 10 members of the practice squad flew out to watch the Huskies play.
Mahier said his friends poke fun at him regularly for playing against women.
“Everybody thinks, guys vs. girls, we’re automatically going to win, which is completely not the case,” he says.
It’s a stark role reversal for a group of guys who were often at the top of the social hierarchy in high school.
“The coolest part is the humility, because I know in our society, if a girl beats you … ,” Moore says, not having to complete the sentence to get the stigma across.
Auriemma says the men “help spread the gospel to all the guys out there” and know that they are helping make the women’s team better.
And the sneakers aren’t bad.
“All my friends are flabbergasted as I come in with new shoes,” says Mahier. “They’re like, ‘Dude!’”