Monday, March 2, 2009

UConn Women Q&A With John Altavilla

Welcome to a snow-covered edition of the OuttaThePahk Q&A series. Today, we chat with Hartford Courant UConn women’s writer John Altavilla, hours before the Huskies attempt to complete an undefeated regular season with a victory at Rutgers. Thanks to all the readers who contributed questions and we look forward to more of these events as the NCAA postseason and Red Sox regular season begins.

Helen leads us off today with a wide-ranging query: Now that you're a veteran of the beat, can you reflect on what you thought you knew about women's basketball and what you now know, both in terms of how the game is played and how it is covered?

John Altavilla: I did not come to the UConn women's basketball beat with a prejudice about the game, in terms of how exciting - or boring - it might be to cover. The reason for that is I've had much previous experience with it, both at the New Haven Register and Courant. In New Haven, I covered a Division II national champion at the University of New Haven - and this was long before I ever met Geno Auriemma.

I enjoy covering the UConn women and the WNBA's Connecticut Sun very much. The personalities are great to deal with, very genuine, mostly cooperative, usually appreciative. I don't even mind not seeing slam dunks. Women actually shoot the ball better, but strangely, cannot make a layup to save their lives. But I never expect the national coverage of the sport to rival that of men's basketball. Frankly, not enough people care, particularly some of the schools that pretend to field competitive teams; yes, even in the Big East.

The OTP asks about the upcoming postseason: What is the one remaining roadblock standing between the Huskies and an undefeated season? Or has Geno covered all his bases?

JA: The only potential problem I can see developing on this team is an injury or a bad shooting night by Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery - on the same night.
UConn has had 13 games in which they've had five players score double-figures, but their starting five score over 80 percent of their points. If Moore and Montgomery falter, who is there to pick up the slack? In terms of who might beat them, look out for Stanford because of its size.

Dave has a two-parter about covering the recruiting process: How do you find out which recruits UConn is interested in and what is UConn's position when it comes to writing articles about future recruits?

JA: Recruiting is a very difficult thing to cover because you are dealing with very young kids not experienced with reporters. Also, the NCAA has a ton of rules in place that universities and colleges must comply with regarding what they say about recruits and, especially, how they should sheltered them from the media during visits on campus.

It becomes a tricky process trying to get a word with a recruit and their families when they are visiting.

The schools themselves are often the biggest obstacle we face when it comes to talking to recruits. Chris Dailey, UConn's associate head coach, reminded me twice at the end of a practice two weeks ago to stop talking to the father of recruit, even though it’s my belief that the stories we eventually write only benefit the program. We find out they are coming from a variety of sources. Coaches are allowed to confirm kids are visiting. High school and AAU coaches and parents are usually the source of the information.

Back to OTP: Which player can we expect to raise the level of her game in the next five weeks? Can Maya Moore be even better, or is it a role player on the verge of busting out?

JA: There's not much else anyone can realistically expect from Maya Moore or Renee Montgomery, perhaps not even Tiffany Hayes, since she's a freshman and has already played so well. But the Huskies need Tina Charles to play consistently great and they can not afford any more games from Kalana Greene that end with zero or two points.

Dave asks another question about coverage: How do you go about deciding on what to report about players on the roster? Are there any subjects that are basically off limits? Do the coaches restrict what you can ask or what they will answer?

JA: The stories we write are basically motivated by events of the day and/or our instinct. If someone has a good game or a bad game, that's a story. If someone is approaching a record, that's a story. Logic comes into play. But you always have to remember that you are dealing with college kids. The media needs to show understanding and restraint when reporting about their performance You need to report fairly and accurately, but there's no reason to take cheap shots, like you might at a pro athlete.

And yes, coaches often try to restrict questions and topics that are discussed, some more than others (see football coaches). When the Elena Delle Donne situation was developing this summer, Geno Auriemma wasn't terribly happy about being questioned about it or having his players asked about it. But 95 percent of the time, Geno in pretty much OK with questions, although we actually only get the watch the last half-hour of practice and usually once - perhaps twice - a week.

Frank chimes in with a similar question: Do you ever have to weigh the interests of fans in learning all they can, against the interests of players and coaches in restricting some information? How does this play out in practice?

JA: Sportswriters represent the newspapers they work for and the fans who read them. But not every request of a reader can be met. There are some issues where common sense needs to prevail. Some fans are extremely enthusiastic and care too much; you'd be surprised how much concerned mail I get about a 29-0 team. I try to remind them to keep things in perspective when perspective seems lost.

The OTP takes one last shot: Which team poses the greatest threat to the Huskies in March, and why?

JA: I mentioned it before - Stanford. Perhaps Oklahoma and Maryland, Duke or North Carolina, if the Huskies have a bad shooting day. I don't think California is capable of beating UConn, Auburn, either. And Baylor just lost its best player.

Finally, here’s a question from Mark W., that everyone is curious about: Do you think the NCAA would have the courage to put Tennessee in UConn's bracket?

JA: Not only would NCAA have the courage, ESPN may demand it!

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