UConn’s young team faces challenges without superstars

Katie Lou Samuelson averaged 11 points per game last year, as a freshman, behind UConn's "big three." Photo by Stephen Slade.
Katie Lou Samuelson averaged 11 points per game last year, as a freshman, behind UConn’s “big three.” Photo by Stephen Slade.

No team lost more to graduation last year than the Connecticut Huskies. The most successful class in the school’s storied history became the three top picks in the WNBA draft, leaving the Huskies in a chasm out of which few teams could climb. With the overwhelming talent of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck gone, this could be the most competitive season ever in women’s basketball.

Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw says at least ten teams could win the national championship. Is it possible for UConn to be in that mix and return to a twelfth consecutive Final Four?

Were this any other elite team, that question might be: can they make the top 25, or maybe the top ten? Expectations for the Huskies, however, have become so high that the pre-season polls show them ranked No. 3 in the AP poll and No. 1 in the coaches poll. Really? Coach Geno Auriemma isn’t convinced, and neither are we at Women’s Hoops World.

“Anyone that picks us number one,” Auriemma has said, “my first question is: ‘Why?’ Show me the evidence.”

He wishes the Huskies were ranked No. 33.

UConn is almost certainly not the best team in the country today. They may have won 75 straight games, but that streak has a real chance of ending soon. They must face Baylor at home in the first week of the season, and then they will deal with Texas at home and Notre Dame there just three days apart, in early December.

The Huskies did lose three All-Americans, but the current roster features highly-skilled players who would be the envy of nearly any program, and the team probably does belong in the top 10 nationally. Moreover, UConn’s success is not solely dependent on having the best players, which they certainly do not have this season. Auriemma has created a culture of hard work and winning that ensures continued excellence. That system, that coach, and those highly skilled players just might put the Huskies in contention in March.

What to expect

Dynamic defense

The starting four of Katie Samuelson, Gabby Williams, Napheesa Collier and Kia Nurse are quick and athletic. In the paint, the team lacks height, but in a pressure defense, they look huge to the average point guard.

“A lot of our offense is gonna have to come from our defense if we’re going to be great,” Williams said.

It will take some time for the young Huskies to gel on defense, but the raw athleticism of this team will overwhelm many of their opponents.

Interchangeable parts

Every key player has guard skills, and whomever has the best lane can bring the ball securely up court. For a team that will have to run to succeed, the versatility of the UConn cast will make guarding the break very difficult. Everyone rebounds. Everyone handles. Everyone scores at a high percentage. None of this year’s starters are yet as talented as any of the three departed All-Americans, but defending them is going to be difficult merely because teams will not be able to concentrate on any one player.

What needs work?

Post play

“I looked out there tonight, and were really small relative to where we’ve been & some of the teams we’re going to be playing,” Auriemma said after the first pre-season contest (a 111-39 win over DII Indiana University).

The only true center on the squad is 6-5 junior Natalie Butler, whose two seasons in Storrs have been a disappointment. She has been exciting and almost dominant in a few games, but more often foul-prone and offensively inconsistent. Even if Butler has improved greatly in the off-season, she is not poised to compete with the nation’s premier post players.

Freshman forward Kyla Irvin is solidly built 6-2, with good footwork and surprising speed. She could provide some solid minutes in the paint, but freshman post players often develop slowly.

Who’s the point?

Freshman Chrystal Dangerfield was the nation’s top point guard as a high school senior, scoring over 2,600 points. She is lightning quick, short (a generous 5-5), and has great court vision. Comparisons to Jefferson are tempting, and if she develops as Jefferson did, the point will be secure. The other possibility is fellow freshman Molly Bent – not lightning quick, but with a high basketball IQ. Whether either can mature into the floor general needed come tournament time is the biggest “if” facing Auriemma as the season begins.

Half-court offense

The Huskies know how to score, and will do so regularly as long as they can run. But three outstanding passers are gone from last season’s offensive juggernaut, and if teams can force UConn into a half-court offense, the point guard question and the immature leadership may expose some problems. Of course, if Dangerfield develops quickly, and the team finds a floor leader, another Final Four is a real possibility. Otherwise, the journey may end a bit earlier than UConn’s norm.

The starters:

Sophomore forward Katie Samuelson, 6-3

Samuelson arrived in Storrs as the high school player of the year, and by season’s end, she was beginning to live up to that ranking. A deft shooter from outside the arc (.394), she has expanded her game to take advantage of her height and all-around skills, becoming a good rebounder and occasional scorer in the paint. Because of her height and all-around skills, she faces intense, but unfair, pressure to “replace” Stewart. But if she can avoid letting those expectations to get into her head, she can provide UConn with a match-up challenge similar to Stewart: a tall player who is quicker than most post players, and has the shooting range and some of the ball-handling skills of a guard. Given time, she has the tools to be the Next Big Thing for the Huskies, and her approach to the season is confident and aggressive.

Junior guard Gabby Williams, 5-11

The best pure athlete in UConn history, Williams is a dynamic rebounder and efficient scorer (.637). She also leads the Husky pressure defense, often at the point. She appears poised to take on a much larger scoring role, and has committed to being the emotional leader of the team. Guard Kia Nurse was chosen AAC preseason player of the year, but Williams may well seize that honor, as she appears poised to release all her immense talent now that the team needs it.

“We’re small, but we’re quick and you might say “pesky,” Williams said last week. “I think my offense will come, but on defense, I want to be this team’s catalyst. I’m trying to get everyone’s energy going on ‘D’.”

Junior Kia Nurse, who played for Canada in the Olympics last summer, is ready to lead the Huskies. Photo by Stephen Slade.
Junior Kia Nurse, who played for Canada in the Olympics last summer, is ready to lead the Huskies. Photo by Stephen Slade.

Junior guard Kia Nurse, 6-0

An Olympian for Canada, and the only player to start every game last season, Nurse provides a steady presence on the court. She begins the year at point guard, but if she is still in that role at season’s end, UConn will not be at its best. She is certainly competent at that position, and is a good passer, but she lacks the flair and overall court vision needed from a point guard on the small, running team that the Huskies must be this year. She also needs to consistently assert herself offensively if she is to contribute what the team needs from her. UConn needs Nurse to deliver a consistent 15 points and a significant part of the leadership-by-committee that Auriemma expects this season.

Sophomore forward Napheesa Collier, 6-1

Another outstanding athlete who plays bigger than her height, Collier had great moments last year and is poised to supply some much needed offense – particularly if she can develop a three-pointer to complement her reliable 15-foot jumper and her athletic drives to the hoop. Collier finished last season providing a spark off the bench, and her demonstrable joy of the game is an important intangible contributor to the team’s chemistry. She is also one of those players who has an innate understanding of the art of rebounding, and will probably lead the team in that statistic.

Who’s fifth?

Yes, only four starters are listed above, and who the fifth will be is the great unknown for Auriemma’s squad. Can Saniya Chong, the lone senior, become that fifth element necessary to high-level success? Maybe, but it would take a major attitude change not seen in the last three years. Chong has been an enigma throughout her tenure at Storrs: very occasionally brilliant, like she was in high school, but more often looking lost and tentative. Early season practices pleased her coach, who quipped “Whoever’s infiltrated her body that’s not Saniya, we don’t want that to escape. Because right now she’s in a really good place.” The UConn faithful can hope she stays in that good place and finally contributes regularly. If not Chong, then the most reliable of the three freshmen will fill that spot. Watching them develop is part of what makes this season so interesting for the Huskies’ spoiled fans.

Bottom line?

UConn is not number one right now. The polls simply don’t have the evidence that Auriemma asked for, and that fans deserve. This could be a very good Husky team, but it will take a lot of work to make it a great one. Auriemma explained the challenge he faces in typically sarcastic terms: “It’s as if someone took your car away and gave you a bike and said, ‘Get to work as fast as you used to.”

The Huskies might get to work in April as the team is “used to,” but in November, Notre Dame, Maryland, South Carolina, Louisville and Baylor all return more seasoned talent, and should be more settled and competitive. UConn faces four of those teams this season – three early – and three on the road. The Huskies will experience some losses in there. By March, however, betting against UConn would be risky.

The Huskies open their season tomorrow night at Florida State.