This is what it looks like when UConn has a “rebuilding” year: 10-0 in mid-December, in the midst of an 85-game winning streak.
Teams were phoning as early as last winter to schedule games against UConn this season, according to Coach Geno Auriemma. This was the year the eleven-time National Champions would be vulnerable. After winning four straight national titles, the Big Three – Brianna Stewart, Morgan Tuck, and Moriah Jefferson – were gone as the three top picks in the WNBA.
UConn’s 2016-17 team had no acknowledged leaders, just one senior (with any playing time), and only two returning starters. They had no proven post players. They were sure to have problems with tall teams like Baylor and South Carolina.
The AP poll had them at No. 3 pre-season, and the coaches poll dropped them to No. 2 after they barely pulled off a two-point victory (78-76) on the road at Florida State. Even after they beat Baylor, Notre Dame stood at No. 1 in both that poll and the USA Today coaches poll.
The Huskies have been ranked No. 1 in both polls now for a few weeks. Monday, they routed No. 12 Ohio State – their fifth win over a ranked team, including the tall Bears and experienced Irish, both by a 72-61 score.
So this was, clearly, the season when a lot of top-caliber teams would defeat UConn. How’s that working out? A frustrated women’s basketball world asks, “Why haven’t the Huskies lost yet?”
The answer to that question is, of course, complex. In its simplest form it comes down to the culture of excellence that Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey have created in the former cow-town of Storrs, Conn. As Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said after the Huskies rolled over his team in a 30-14 third quarter:
“Every possession, they’re moving the ball, they’re executing, they’re cutting. They do that better than anybody else in the country. They execute what they want to do better than the rest of us, and that’s really why we’re all trying to catch them.”
Beyond that system, which is a perennial part of UConn teams, are these ten specifics about this season’s Huskies:
- They aren’t chopped liver. The core of this team are top recruits who all spent one or two years practicing against the three best players in the country. Why would they not have the skills to compete with anyone currently playing college basketball?
2. The sophomores have never lost a game; the juniors only one, by two points, in overtime, on the road. That was 85 games ago. Most of them lost very few games in high school. Winning, and the expectation of winning, shows on the court.
- Nobody is ready in December: In the early part of the season, most teams are making adjustments to changes in lineup or player responsibility. Most of them have lost at least one or two key players. Pretty much every team has its early season problems, just like UConn. But only the Huskies have:
- The best coach in the nation, and possibly the best basketball coach ever. Auriemma and the system he created simply prepares players in a way only a few teams can match. He has created an expectation of excellence that draws players to UConn, and under which they thrive. Often missed in the parade of high school players of the year, is that the Huskies pass on talent that is not prepared to buy into the unselfish, pass-first, high assist concept that is a UConn staple. When it is time for his players to step into larger roles, they are prepared.
- A tradition of tough defense. In a very short time, this UConn team has become a very good defensive team, despite losing essentially all of the glue that held the defense together last season. In just six weeks practicing and playing together, this year’s squad has learned to communicate reasonably well. At times against both Baylor and Texas, teams with considerable height, the “new” Huskies were outstanding at denying entry passes and doubling into the paint.
- Passing: the top six players all have over 20 assists, and the team has 191 assists for 265 baskets (72 percent). Notre Dame’s team assists on 60 percent of its scores, Baylor on 67 percent.
- Interchangeability: Except for reserve center Natalie Butler, any player who rebounds the ball can bring it up court. This makes the fast break, which the Huskies have always run better than anyone else, even faster. The top six players can all shoot threes, drive to the bucket, and hit fifteen footers. On defense, they can switch on every screen without losing much in the match up. The length and athleticism of the Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson, and Gabby Williams matches well with any perimeter player in the game. Kia Nurse has developed into both the team leader and a crafty one-on-one defender, usually assigned to the best guard on the opposition.
- The emergence of Collier and the steadiness of Samuelson. At 6-1, Collier is a classic “tweener,” who one would not expect to compete among the best. Instead, she has emerged in her sophomore year as an elite scorer (20.2 ppg) and instinctive rebounder (7.7 rpg). Through ten games, she is shooting .646, from everywhere on the court. Samuelson, who began to show her skills late in her freshman year, is now worth a steady 20.4 points. She has expanded her game from three-point spot-up shooting (.466) to include drives to the basket, mid-range jumpers and even post moves.
“There are some in every class, they know, and you know, they’re going to be asked to do exactly what these two (Collier & Samuelson) are doing right now,” Auriemma said after the Ohio State victory.
“You know, that’s what they were brought here for. And they know – last year I can cruise, just enjoy the ride, do my thing, no pressure that much, but I know that time’s coming when those guys are gone, and it’s all on me now. Well, they want that. That’s why they’re here. So when they get an opportunity, they can’t wait. They want it. And not everybody does, though. Not everybody wants to be in that situation. Those lights are pretty bright.”
- Gabby Williams’ athleticism. The 5-11 junior has long been recognized as the best pure athlete to have played for UConn. This season she has displayed a remarkable tenacity and toughness along with a new-found vision that has her leading the team in both rebounds (7.7) and assists (43).
- Shooting threes. Samuelson (.466), Nurse (.408) and Collier (.429) have been deadly from beyond the arc. Samuelson, at 6-3 is one of the best in the nation, and can shoot over most perimeter guards. The Huskies average 7.6 made threes a game.
“I mean if you saw Pheesa play in high school, you’d say “I’m not surprised,” Auriemma said. “I don’t think the kid missed 3 shots her whole senior year. And if you saw Lou … Lou would get 30 in the first half and just make it look easy. So I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised at all.”
The Huskies haven’t lost because they continue to have great players who enjoy each other, trust each other, and play the game with a precision no other team can match.
Auriemma is sort-of enjoying this different year.
“The kids are having fun. This group of kids, they’re having lots. They’re having a lot more fun than they were having last year,” he said.
“I’m enjoying it….a little bit. I gotta come up with stuff. Last year I could go, ‘Yo.’ And they would go ‘I got it.’ Now, it’s ‘hey pass the ball and cut here.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Here.’ ‘When?’ ‘Now!’ It’s like that every day in practice.”
Notes on the most recent victory:
Ohio State hangs tough, but Huskies extend their streak with a strong third quarter:
As long as Kelsey Mitchell is available, Ohio State will not be entirely out of the game. Except in the second half of this one. Her 19 points in the first half brought the Buckeyes back from deficits as large as 14, and twice she scored eight points in a row. Ohio State closed to six on a 30-foot Mitchell buzzer beater. The Buckeyes kept it competitive throughout the first half, and closed to within one with 8:48 left. UConn outscored Ohio State by just three points in each of the first two quarters.
The second half was different, as it has been for the Huskies for most of recent memory. They opened up a lead as large as 21 in the third quarter on defense and balanced scoring inside and at mid-range. Mitchell was held to 2-10 shooting in the second half, and the Buckeyes turned it over 19 times, leading to 28 UConn points. The final score was 82-63. Mitchell scored 23 points, but only hit 9-24 shots. Stephanie Mavunga had 13 points and 15 rebounds for Ohio State.
For UConn, Collier had 27 points and 11 boards, Samuelson scored 26, including 5-12 on threes. Williams grabbed 12 rebounds with 7 assists and 6 steals.
UConn’s winning streak is the second longest in NCAA women’s history, behind their own record of 90. UCLA has the men’s record at 88. To break their own mark will require the Huskies to beat two more ranked teams: No. 4/3 Maryland on Dec. 29, and No. 22/19 South Florida on Jan. 10.