Geno Auriemma is relieved the women's basketball world championship is finally set to begin. Now he simply can focus on the games.
Setting his roster was not fun for the 56-year-old coach, who hadn't made cuts in nearly 30 years. Auriemma wasn't directly making the decisions — that task fell to the U.S. basketball selection committee — but he still felt a huge emotional burden as the roster was trimmed from 17 players to 12 over the last five days.
"Going through it was not something I enjoyed or want to do again," he said. "I think it affected me and the way I approached my team for two weeks because I knew it was going to happen."
The UConn coach had to let his former star point guard Renee Montgomery go, and then 2008 Olympians Kara Lawson and Seimone Augustus became the final two cuts.
"I don't think I've had to go through where someone got cut in 35 years," he said. "I don't even know what you're supposed to say, how you're supposed to handle it. It's never easy. In this case it's even more difficult because the time and effort that everyone put in."
Auriemma thinks he last made cuts while coaching high school boys basketball at his alma-mater Bishop Kenrick in Norrinston, Pa. from 1979-81.
"It's really been a trying time for the coaching staff," Auriemma said. "We live with these players. They've given us everything we've asked. Then you have to send two of them home. It's the most unpleasant part of the job. Now that it's over and now that the games are coming here we're focused to that."
The U.S. will open group play on Thursday against Greece, which is making its first appearance in the world championship.
The Americans, who haven't gone consecutive worlds without winning a gold medal since 1971-75, haven't had much time as a team to prepare for the tournament. Wednesday marked the first day that the entire group practiced together because of the WNBA playoffs.
Sue Bird and Swin Cash led the Seattle Storm past Angel McCoughtry and the Atlanta Dream for the WNBA title last week. All three arrived in the Czech Republic on Tuesday.
"It definitely isn't something I'm used to," Auriemma said. "We've had our group together for one day and trying to get everything in place. I'm just excited to get this underway."
Auriemma is already familiar with half his squad. Six players, including current senior Maya Moore, have been coached by him at Connecticut.
"The familiarity helps in that they know the system, but getting used to playing with each other on the court takes time," he said.
Moore joined Candace Parker (2006) and Chamique Holdsclaw (1998) as the only collegians to play for the U.S. at this tournament in the past 12 years.
Success may hinge on center Sylvia Fowles' left knee. She had surgery to repair a torn meniscus before the start of training camp in September. The 6-foot-6 star has only taken part in full practices for two days, but is getting more comfortable on the court.
"The knee is feeling great," she said after practice Wednesday. "It hasn't been giving me any problems. I'm feeling 100 percent and excited to be back on the court."
The U.S. is already missing Parker, who injured her left shoulder early in the WNBA summer season and is unable to play.
"The post play is definitely a concern, we have a lot of young talent but there is a lot of size out there on the other teams," Auriemma said.
While Fowles works her way back into shape, the onus will be on Tina Charles — the WNBA rookie of the year.
After facing Greece, the Americans will take on France and Senegal in their group. The top three teams advance to the second round. Defending champion Australia, China, Canada and Belarus are in the other group playing in Ostrava.
The Australians, led by WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson, are again shaping up to be the main competition for the Americans.
Russia, which beat the U.S. in the 2006 semifinals in Brazil, is in Group D along with Argentina, Japan, and the host Czech Republic.
Once again, Russia will have American-born point guard Becky Hammon on the roster. The San Antonio Silver Stars guard, who plays for a Russian club team during the winter, became a naturalized Russian citizen and helped guide the country to a third-place finish at the Beijing Olympics.
Brazil, Spain, Mali, and South Korea make up the other group playing in Brno.
The gold medal game will be played on Oct. 3 in Karlovy Vary.