STORRS -- It's all about attention to detail at UConn. That's what the Huskies have mastered to build their women's basketball dynasty.
It's about discipline as much as talent, decorum as much as defense. It's about playing as a team on the court and playing by the rules off the court.
"I think it's important that the little details are enforced," sophomore Kelly Faris said. "It's part of being a championship team or any team. You need to learn how to carry yourself well. It's not just about the basketball. It's about different life lessons."
For the five freshmen on this year's team, there is much to learn about a lot of things, a code of conduct to absorb, protect and defend.
"Our kids come here with high standards," said Chris Dailey, UConn's associate head coach. "They want to be great players, great people; they want to win. They need to know that we [the coaches] know how to accomplish that. I was around Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Asjha Jones recently [at the world championships] and I know they appreciated those things, even though they may not have when they were freshmen. They all know what separates the program."
Shortly after the freshmen arrived in Storrs, they were introduced to a UConn way that runs straight and focused. It demands that players put aside some personal preferences and adhere to the program's style.
"The older girls warned us about Coach Dailey's rules," freshman Michala Johnson said. "It was kind of new to me. In high school, there weren't any rules for things like that. But coming here lets you know that it's not just about the basketball. It's about conducting yourself in a professional manner."
Johnson has a small tattoo on her ankle. UConn rules prevent exposed tattoos while in uniform. Johnson and freshmen Lauren Engeln and Bria Hartley like to wear fingernail polish. UConn rules prevent the players from wearing any during the season.
"The summer was the last time I could wear it," Johnson said. "That's the one rule that I was most shocked about. CD [Dailey] really got on me about it. As soon as I came back to school after the summer, that was it, nor more nail polish. Bria, Lauren and I all like to paint our nails, so it's going to be tough for us."
Dailey said the rules are not meant to be punitive, but are part of the code of behavior the coaches feel contributes to the team's success.
"Let me ask you: Can you take a basketball player who wears nail polish seriously? I say no," Dailey said. "When you step onto the court, you are a basketball player. And in my view, a basketball player does not come with nail polish."
The responsibility of getting the young players up to speed lies with the upperclassmen. For the most part, senior Lorin Dixon and juniors Caroline Doty and Tiffany Hayes served as this year's liaisons.
"The coaches tell us what needs to be done and said, since we already know what the situation is," Hayes said. "We relay the message, and if something goes wrong, if something needs to be done or said, it's on us to do it.
"We take the responsibility. If they don't know what's going on, the rest of us are the ones who will be in trouble. We have a team meeting, just the players, and we let them know what the rules are."
There also is a dress code on and off the floor.
"When we go to banquets, the players wear a skirt or a dress," Dailey said. "We just ask them to hold themselves to a higher standard.
"Part of what we do is develop a responsible attitude about all of this in our older players so they can handle a lot of [the enforcement] without us getting involved. There are times when we've had to step in and set things straight, but the veterans usually tell the younger players ahead of time what's acceptable and what isn't; you know, 'This is what we wear, this is what we don't wear, this is how we act and this is how we don't act.'"
Getting accustomed to the UConn way does take time. As gifted as the players are, they come to Storrs from different athletic cultures, some much less structured.
"When I was a freshman, I thought most of the rules were ridiculous," former UConn guard Mel Thomas said. "No more painted nails, no more high socks and no more untucked shirts. Ashley Valley was a senior when I was a freshman, and she had to remind me just about every day for the first month of practice to tuck in my jersey."
Dailey says the rules are designed to help the UConn players develop important life skills.
"I tell the kids all the time that someday no one is going to ask them for their autograph," she said. "When someone does, you look them in the eye, speak to them and sign what they ask you to sign. When someone sees you in the mall, you say hello to them. You do it because that's the right thing to do.
"Do you think a kid will not come to UConn because I say they can't wear nail polish? That's not a deal-breaker. The biggest rule is to understand that decisions you make now impact a lot of people. We ask them to be responsible, not do anything that will embarrass yourself, your family, your teammates, the program or the university. Normally, after saying that, you don't have to say a lot of other things."
The plan seems to be working. UConn not only wins national championships and produces world-level players, the Huskies carry what they've learned into their post-college lives.
"I played on two different teams overseas where the rules no longer applied, but I still followed them," Thomas said. "I don't think I've painted my nails since high school, ditched the high socks and tucked in my jersey as soon as I put it on.
"At team dinners, I caught myself sneaking to text under the table even though no one would have cared. It's just funny how much I hated the structure when I first arrived, but I couldn't imagine it any other way by the time I left.
"So here are my words of wisdom for the freshmen: If you want to make life easier on yourself, just listen. You can try to fight it, but you'll never win. And eventually you'll do things their way, anyway. It may seem dumb now, but it'll all make sense someday."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun