UConn? You’re going to play the UConn women’s basketball team? Good luck. [Insert side-eye here]

I’ve had this conversation – or some derivation of it – several times since our schedule came out. So, I thought I’d take this blogging opportunity to answer the question of how this series came about.

Or, as some people have asked more bluntly, what was I thinking?

Glad you asked.

While our conference schedule is set by the Pac-12 and we have no control over it, coaches actually get to craft the non-conference slate. You have to work with other schools, of course, and around school/holiday dates, and within your university’s criteria or budget parameters, but generally the schedule before conference play has the signature of the head coach on it.

I’m thoughtful and intentional about everything I do with our program, and scheduling, an important component, is no exception.  A lot of things go into it. We try to have a balanced schedule, one that produces a strong RPI, yet gives us the chance to grow as a team. We want to play teams with various competitive styles to prepare us for the rigors of the Pac-12. We like to travel to interesting places when possible, and also play the schools nearby so local fans from both sides can attend.

Above anything else in my thought process, however, is my desire to give our players the best experience I possibly can while they are a student-athlete under my watch at Cal.

I know that sounds pretty simple and straightforward, but it’s the truth. What impact will this have on our student-athletes? How will this affect their experience here? It is the question that passes through my mind more than any other single thought with the respect to decisions I make around our team.

About two years ago I was by the scorer’s table in our gym, about to get practice started. I was putting my phone down when I felt the familiar vibration of a text message coming through.

“Hey, you want to play us?”

A pretty ordinary request, from a pretty extraordinary person. It was Geno Auriemma asking if we wanted to start a home-and-home series.

It took me less than 30 seconds to decide.

“Sure,” I typed, before my players even had a chance to give me a hard time for being on my phone as practice was starting.

How will this affect the experience of my student-athletes? I didn’t need to think very long before knowing the answer.

Cal, as an institution, is about excellence. Our 130 academic departments are filled with faculty and students  who are among the best in their fields, Nobel Prize winners and Fulbright scholars. We are the No. 1 Public University in the world. It’s important to me that our women’s basketball program settle for nothing less than the pursuit of excellence.

UConn is the best our game has to offer. They have the best coach, have won the most championships, and consistently set the bar for the highest level of play. They are covered by the most media outlets and play in front of full arenas.

What experience do I want my student-athletes to have?

I want them to compete on the biggest stage. I want them to challenge excellence so that they raise their level of expectation for themselves. I want them to prepare as if they are playing against the best team out there, and then compete like we belong.

We’ll experience the east coast autumn while we’re here. We’re going to check out the Basketball Hall of Fame. We try to fit in cultural experiences on road trips when we can. We’re playing another game on Sunday, at a pretty neat place called Brown University.

But when people ask me “Why UConn?”, the answer is clear.

Because we have players that want to be the best and a coach that wants to give them every opportunity to reach their goals. This trip, this experience, will have meaning for our team beyond the 40 minutes of game play on Friday night. I’m sure of that.

I checked my phone one more time during that practice. Geno had texted me again.

“Oh, and let’s do a four-game series, ok? Two at our place, two at Cal.”

Play UConn, four years in a row? I took a few deep breathes after I read it. Then I thought about our program and our players, and responded.

“Let’s do it. We’re in.”