COLLEGE BEAT: Being first across the pond helped Geno bring Croatia star to Storrs

COLLEGE BEAT: Being first across the pond helped Geno bring Croatia star to Storrs

STORRS — When Nika Muhl, one of the most talented recruits in the women’s basketball Class of 2020, decided to officially announce her commitment to UConn last week, she said her future head coach Geno Auriemma was not surprised.

“I think he already knew,” Muhl said on informing Auriemma of her commitment. “I wouldn’t say that he was surprised. I think we had it going for a couple of times already. We both knew what my decision would be.”

Muhl said that she knew UConn and Auriemma were serious about her when the head coach made the trek to her hometown of Zagreb, Croatia — about a 13-hour flight from campus.

“(The home visit) was a big trigger for me and it became very obvious that it would affect my decision,” Muhl said of Auriemma’s mid-March visit. “He was the first one to visit. He made me think that he really cared and that he really wanted me there.”

It is easy to see why Auriemma homed in on Muhl. Her outgoing and unselfish personality is something that UConn has always considered to be in vogue.

Muhl said she enjoys cracking jokes and hanging out with her friends, but on the court she is a completely different person.

“I don’t know, once I get on the court, I really love to be serious and work as hard as possible,” Muhl said.

The future Husky wanted to see her potential teammates in person before officially making the decision. Muhl made the trip to Tampa to watch UConn in the Final Four. Her main focus was to see how the team interacted and fought for their ultimate goal.

Despite the loss in the semifinals to Notre Dame, Muhl was impressed. So she decided not to waste any time and officially commit.

Plenty of friends, family and fans reached out to congratulate Muhl on her commitment, including some current and former Huskies.

“The biggest deal was when Breanna Stewart shared my tweet and followed me on Twitter,” Muhl said. “That was like, wow. I really couldn’t believe that.”

Muhl’s skillset matches up perfectly with the Huskies’ style of play. The 5-foot-11 point guard said she enjoys playing at a fast pace, which is UConn’s bread and butter. However, Muhl said she will have to adjust, as many freshmen must, to the physicality of the college game.

“I think it’s the same intensity — like how fast we play,” Muhl said in assessing the similarities and differences of college and international basketball. “I think details are what matters here in the USA and in Croatia. We mostly base our game on tactics. We just play so fast here in Croatia, but I don’t know the complete difference quite yet.”

Dean Nemec, Muhl’s coach for Tresnjevka, said that Muhl is an uber-athletic guard who has a knack for creating chaos on defense and the quickness to exploit defenders in the lane.

“Her ultimate weapon is transition and high intensity of play,” Nemec said via email. “And participation in all segments of the game — score points, assistance, jumps on defense and attacks, stolen balls.”

Nemec said that having Muhl go on to play for a program like UConn is special for him and the program in Croatia.

“It is a great honor for Nika and for us in the club that the player (who) has grown out of our system of work will play on one of the best NCAA teams,” Nemec said.

The honor of playing for UConn has come with great time and energy put into perfecting her craft. Muhl’s days are long. She has practice twice a day, with the last one ending around 11 p.m.

Muhl’s grueling schedule has prepared her for what is in store at Storrs. In fact, she is already looking forward to practicing with her teammates.

“Because UConn always gets great players, I think it’s going to be so much fun in practice,” Muhl said. “I’m going to learn 10 times faster because I am going to have the best teammates. I’m really looking forward to making myself and the team better.”

When she arrives in Connecticut, Muhl will have to compete with fellow Class of 2020 commit Paige Bueckers, the No. 1 overall recruit, for the starting point guard position. While the two have not yet spoken to each other since committing, they have played against each other and Muhl said she expects Bueckers to be a force.

“(Bueckers) is really good. I think she’ll play a big impact when she comes to UConn and I’m looking forward to playing with her and practicing with her,” Muhl said.

Muhl has not visited UConn yet, but she expects to by the end of April or early May. Despite not visiting before her commitment, the point guard said she knew this was the best place for her to continue her basketball and academic career.

“No, it wasn’t hard to commit without visiting first,” Muhl said. “Thinking about UConn, I didn’t need a visit to prove to myself that I wanted to go there. I am just so excited to get to campus and see what it’s all about and get to work.”