UConn women’s basketball 2022-23: Huskies take on a distinct international flavor as Geno Auriemma transforms Storrs into the crossroads of the world

The notes app on Azzi Fudd’s iPhone is a Rosetta Stone of sorts. Fascinated with how kids grow up learning multiple languages overseas, the UConn women’s basketball guard started picking up Hungarian from Pecs native Dorka Juhász last season and is now trying her hand at French with the help of graduate transfer Lou Lopez Sénéchal.

Fudd eagerly peppers the pair with questions about how to say certain things in their native languages. She’ll then jot down the word, what it means and how to pronounce it. She’s thrown Juhász off a few times by pulling out Hungarian terms in practice. And though it’s newer to her repertoire, Fudd is getting better at French, too.

“French is harder because of like the R sound, but Lou says I’m actually pretty good,” Fudd said. “Hungarian is honestly a little bit easier in the accent aspect. I’m not even trying Croatian and Portuguese. I gotta stick with two.”

A wide variety of languages can be heard in the Huskies’ locker room this season. There’s also Spanish from Lopez Sénéchal, who grew up speaking that and French since she was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and later moved to Grenoble, France. Plus, Nika Mühl is often on the phone talking in Croatian with her family back home in Zagreb, Croatia.

Though her voice isn’t often heard as loud amid the other languages in the energetic locker room, freshman guard Inês Bettencourt is from São Miguel, Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal. The four Europeans combine with Kingston, Ontario, Canada native Aaliyah Edwards to make five international players on this 2022-23 UConn squad. That accounts for half of the Huskies’ active players and marks the most overseas talent for any team in program history.

“The internationals are taking over,” Mühl declared in September.

How UConn approaches international recruiting

Though UConn teams have included players from countries outside of the United States in the past, there’s certainly been an increase in recent years.

Counting this year’s roster, 14 international players have suited up for UConn across the all-time history of the program. Seven of those came across the first 44 seasons of the team’s existence, starting with Orly Grossman from Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1990-91 and most notably including Russia’s Svetlana Abrosimova, who was a three-time All-American from 1997 to 2001.

Seven foreign born players have played for the Huskies across the last four seasons alone (including this year). Dating back to 2019 20 season, there have been at least two international players on UConn’s roster each year.

Last season’s team included three — Edwards, Mühl and Juhász — which was was tied for the most of any year in program history. The only other instance was in 2000-01 when Abrosimova, Christine Rigby (Canada) and Kelly Schumacher (Canada) were on the roster. Now that number is up to five for 2022-23 with Lopez Senechal and Bettencourt in the mix.

So is there a specific intention behind the recent trend?

“Sometimes it goes in cycles, you know? We just happen to be in one for whatever reason,” Geno Auriemma said Friday. “But I do think if you look around the country — even in men’s basketball, heck our own men’s team — you’ll find that there’s more and more 17-, 18-year-olds wanting to come over here to go to school and play basketball than ever before.”

Though associate head coach Chris Dailey noted the Huskies aren’t as well versed in the international recruiting scene like some programs such as South Florida, where head coach Jose Fernandez has built his program around international talent, she does think the way UConn approaches whether to recruit domestically or internationally is “changing a little bit.”

Dailey explained that years ago coaches overseas often didn’t even let college staffs talk to players. Another one of the tricky aspects of recruiting international players is how professional contracts come into play.

“You can go sometimes through the whole process and have them go pro anyway,” Dailey said. “So we have to work really hard at trying to find international players that really want to come and play and go to college and play in the US before they make a decision to play pro.”

The UConn staff watches FIBA world championships and other international events over the offseason, especially when the United States plays, and sometimes finds an international player that stands out in the process. Dailey said she has a lot of friends that do international recruiting and assistant Morgan Valley has a lot of international contacts, so sometimes they’ll hear names and follow up on those too. The coaching staff will go overseas to scout players live as well.

“The world is getting smaller,” Auriemma said. “You recruit from California, it’s a five-hour trip, right. You recruit from Spain, it’s a five-hour trip. What’s the difference?”

What the UConn experience is like for international players

Juhász kept going back and forth on whether or not she wanted to give name, image and likeness (NIL) a try. With only a limited time to spend in Hungary, Juhász didn’t want to take time away from her family. But this would also be her one chance to capitalize on such opportunities.

NIL rules work differently for international student athletes across the NCAA. While their domestic-born teammates are able to cash in on the NIL boom year-round, the international Huskies can only take advantage when they’re physically in their native countries.

After talking it over with Mühl, Juhász decided to give Cameo, a popular app where fans can pay for personalized videos from celebrities, athletes and other influencers, a try. It turned out to be quite the success. Eager to show their support, UConn fans flooded the pair with requests. They were asked to do everything from birthday shoutouts to motivational pep talks.

“It was super nice because I kind of felt like it was reconnecting a little bit more with the fans on a deeper level,” Juhász said. “It was very busy, but it was just good to see how many people follow us and love us and support us. And I already found that when I got those letters after my surgery, but … just coming up and supporting us in this way was very nice to see.”

The NIL rules are just one way the experience for international players is different than that of those who grew up in the States. For instance, they have to meet certain visa requirements, which dictate what classes they can and can’t take. Then there’s the more obvious differences, such as having to be so far away from family, adapting to a new culture and speaking English all the time instead of their native language.

“They deserve a lot of credit,” Valley said. “I just think it takes a lot of courage and really just brave to come over here and try to experience something new, just to have this goal. I mean, you could do it anywhere and to choose here is that much harder. So I think it’s it’s pretty amazing the parents let them come, that they want to come.”

In doing so, Juhász hopes to inspire other kids from Hungary. Whenever she goes back home she talks to players at the academy where she grew up, eager to show them that it is possible to play for a big-time college program with hard work and the right exposure.

“It’s such a small country,” Juhász said. “It makes me proud just as a Hungarian kid to be able to play at UConn and just having these opportunities to go and chase my dreams … I mean, it’s amazing.”

How international diversity helps the Huskies

The heavy international presence brings quite the dynamic to this year’s Huskies’ squad, both on and off the court.

“It just adds to our team,” Valley said. “Any team I’ve had that has an international player, they just play a little bit different.”

“Different” is also the word Mühl uses to describe the European player mentality. It goes beyond the style of play or the stark contrast in how fouls are called, which the 5-foot-10 guard is quick to point out.

American born prospects harness their game in high school and on the AAU circuit, but that’s not how the developmental system works overseas. Rather, those players are ingrained into the professional side of the sport during their high school years, playing for club teams alongside women much older than them. Sharing the court with women who were being paid to play as a job to provide for their families, often with kids of their own, had a big influence on Mühl.

“Stepping into that professional basketball at early age I think makes you grow up a little bit sooner, makes you learn a lot of stuff,” Mühl explained. “You play with somebody that’s 30 years old with their kind of experience, it’s just, it’s crazy and you learn so much. In such a short time you learn so much and that’s really valuable.”

International prospects also get crucial experience playing for their national team systems. Basketball academies play a factor too. Lopez Sénéchal spent a year at the North Atlantic Basketball Academy in Dublin, Ireland, adapting to an entirely new culture before even starting her college career at Fairfield. It’s all part of the sacrifice those players make on

The decision to sacrifice the comforts of home in order to pursue their basketball and academic aspirations speaks to the unique international player mindset.

“What you’re getting for the most part is you’re getting a kid who understands and who’s willing to work at it,” Auriemma said. “They just want an opportunity to come here and play, and I love having them around.”

In addition to her attempt to become trilingual, Fudd and other Huskies have enjoyed learning about the various backgrounds of their international teammates. Fudd likes to hear their stories from back home, curious about how differently they grew up than she did.

“It’s just fun sometimes to talk about the different cultures, even talk with Dorka and Nika, just like learn different things,” Lopez Sénéchal said. “So just having diversity on the team, I think it’s a plus for us. And that’s how we can help to build the chemistry too.”

The Huskies get competitive with Team World vs Team USA activities off the court, trying to best each other in things like word games and board games. They’re hoping to carry that over to actual practice eventually. Juhász said players have also talked about having the European players cook signature dishes from home for their teammates, but with such a busy schedule it hasn’t come to fruition yet.

Fudd is also quick to tell her international teammates: “You better be ready for when I come visit and overstay my welcome. I’m coming.” With five Huskies from Croatia, Hungary, Portugal, France and Canada, she’ll certainly have a fun variety of destinations to choose from.