Why won’t anyone listen to Geno Auriemma?

Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game,Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game,Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has been consistent in his evaluation of this season’s team. He has explained repeatedly that this team is not like the teams of the last 20 years, in many ways. The No. 6 Huskies have no All-Americans. The team is young, but more importantly, they are immature.

“I don’t know how far we can go this year,” said the man who once guaranteed (and delivered) a National Championship.

But apparently almost no prognosticators believed him. Even after UConn was humiliated last week for the second time in eight days by a South Carolina team that was too quick, too tall, and too confident for his players to handle, the USA Today coaches poll still ranked them No. 6 the day afterward. The highest ranked team they have beaten this year was No. 16 DePaul.

The Huskies have a ton of talent and certainly could defeat some top 10 teams – and probably those ranked below that. But they have not shown that they are certain to do so, as have so many teams of the past.

The considerable doubt shown by Auriemma all season needs to filter down to the pollsters and prognosticators – not to mention to the UConn fans, who cannot fathom a team not making the Final Four. The team has made the last 12 straight.

Against the No. 1 Gamecocks, the Huskies scored two points in the first quarter, on 1-16 shooting, and were lucky enough (and defended well enough) to be down “just” nine points going into the second period.

Their go-to scorers, Megan Walker and Christyn Williams, short-armed shots, looked tentative and passive, and missed everything they attempted, including several layups. When the quickness of South Carolina made the UConn passing game difficult, they stood around rather than moving more or using backdoor cuts to defeat the overplay.

Auriemma has been talking about exactly those problems all year. Who was listening?

Things improved in the second quarter, but most of the offense still came from Crystal Dangerfield. The teams played almost even in the second and third quarters, but the Huskies got no closer than 11 the rest of the way, shot just 36 percent, and gave up an unusual number of three’s to their opponents.

UConn has three losses – all of them massacres by the current top-ranked teams in the Gamecocks, No. 2 Baylor and No. 3 Oregon.

By contrast, in the week between the loss to the Ducks and the South Carolina game, the Huskies looked spectacular in dominating Memphis, 94-55, while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field and hitting 11 three’s. But that contrast is a big part of UConn’s problem: they play lots of not-very-good teams in a not-very-good league, the AAC. Thus, they have very few games in which they are severely challenged. When they have been, they have come up very short. And they looked lost in the process.

With only conference games remaining, and all of them against the better teams in the league, the Huskies will not face a nationally-ranked team until at least the round of 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

It is up in the air whether they will meet the challenges of the second weekend of the tournament, or fade away as they have done now three times this season.

Auriemma promises that the team is getting better, and that can be seen in the sometimes stellar (and often not) play of his freshmen, Anna Makurat and Aubrey Griffin. It can be seen in the slow but steady improvement of Olivia Nelson-Ododa, his only true post player.

The NCAA Tournament is more than a month away, and maybe UConn can surprise us. But now is now, and we can only make observations on now. This unusual team makes predictions just speculation. What we may have learned is:

Dawn Staley is a leading candidate for Division I coach of the year. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.
Dawn Staley is a leading candidate for Division I coach of the year. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.

Dawn Staley should be Coach of the Year

South Carolina starts three freshmen and two seniors. The freshman have played stunningly well, and with supreme confidence. Aliyah Boston is already one of the nation’s best posts. With these youngsters, the Gamecocks have won 17 in a row, including wins over nine ranked teams including Maryland, Baylor, Mississippi State, and now, UConn.

Coach Dawn Staley’s ability to take these newcomers and give them the confidence to perform in the biggest games has been masterful. Nine of her 12 players are underclasswomen, and many of them are playing a lot of minutes.

I confess I was not a fan of Staley’s coaching in the past, but she certainly has taken her squad to a level nobody expected as the year began. Her team plays hard, fast, and together, and the results have been stunning.

With no more ranked SEC teams on the schedule, there is a significant chance South Carolina will finish the regular season 29-1. And absent a disaster in the SEC tournament, that record gives them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

That success is all on Staley. She has found the key to motivating talented young players.

UConn plays pretty good defense

Connecticut’s defense has been quite good – just not good enough to make up for their offensive woes. They held Baylor 10 points under their average, Oregon 11 under, and South Carolina 12 under.

In those three games, however, the Husky offense has scored an average of 14 points under its own scoring average (53 points versus 77), and 13 percentage points (34/47) below its shooting average.

Auriemma has his squad communicating better on defense each game, and they have shown an ability to change defenses frequently to effectively keep opponents guessing. Nelson-Ododa has become a good post defender, and she is an excellent rim-protector.

Tyasha Harris sails over the UConn defense and puts up a shot. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.
Tyasha Harris sails over the UConn defense and puts up a shot. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.

Tyasha Harris and Crystal Dangerfield are great point guards

Gamecock guard Tyasha Harris had her national coming out party against UConn, carrying her team in the first quarter and being responsible, between assists and buckets, for nearly half of their points. She finished with 19 of her own, to go along with 11 assists. Staley would gladly tell you that Harris has been doing it all year, so we should have noticed before this. Harris ranks in the top 20 in all assist categories, with 5.5 per game and a 2.62 assist/turnover ratio.

The awards voters have noticed, and Harris is on the midseason Naismith player of the year, and Lieberman point guard of the year award lists.

Dangerfield is on both lists, too. Unfortunately for both of them, Oregon super-guard Sabrina Ionescu is also playing this year.

Dangerfield has been the only Husky to play with confidence in their three losses. Because her team missed so many shots, her assist figures are not gaudy. But she scored 16, 19, and 25 points in those match ups, including 11-21 from beyond the arc.

She has been willing to try to lead by example, but it has to be frustrating to have so little support in the big games.

Aliyah Boston elevates over Olivia Nelson-Ododa to score. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.
Aliyah Boston elevates over Olivia Nelson-Ododa to score. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa is getting a lot better

It is easy to miss the improvement of UConn’s sophomore center among the many problems seen in the nationally-televised games. Nelson-Ododa has held her own defensively against Baylor’s Lauren Cox and Boston, forcing both to shoot jump shots. She is slight of build, but has shown the strength to force bigger posts out of the low block. As she has no real post help, this is no small feat, and a huge improvement in the last few months.

She also continues block shots with the best, an important contribution to the Huskies’ vertically-challenged defense. She ranks fifth in the nation with 78 blocks – 3.39 per game.

Her offensive game has been slower to mature, but in recent contests, including for short periods against South Carolina, she showed improved and effective low post moves. When she focuses on playing like a center, she can be quite effective. Doing so consistently is still a work in progress. And she should stop attempting three’s altogether.

Megan Walker needs to be the new Megan Walker in big games

Walker has been UConn’s leading offensive threat this season, stepping up her game to help replace the more than 4,700 points lost when Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson graduated last year. She has shown confidence and aggression for most of the season as an undersized three/four player, and rebounds well above her height.

She is averaging 19 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, shooting 46 percent overall and 41 percent on threes.

Against both Oregon and South Carolina, however, she returned to the insecure, tentative Walker of the past two years. As a result, she has shot just 8-27 (.292) in those two match ups – 2-13 from outside the arc.

Auriemma has said all year that his “big three” – Dangerfield, Walker, and Christyn Williams – had to play well every game for the team to succeed.

Walker has not done so in the biggest games.

Williams, however, has been a disaster in the last two of them.

Zia Cooke eyes the basket as she fights Christyn Williams' defense. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.
Zia Cooke eyes the basket as she fights Christyn Williams’ defense. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.

Where is the Christyn Williams we thought we knew?

Williams was only six games into her college career when she erupted for 28 points against reigning National Champion Notre Dame in December, 2018. She slashed into the paint, attacked on the baseline, and hit 2-4 threes and 4-5 free throws in a dominant performance.

Unfortunately, her career highs in points, field goals and attempts all came in that early contest. She scored just eight points in a victory over No. 8 Baylor that year, and five in a loss to No. 3 Louisville.  She recovered with 19 against South Carolina, and 16 in a tournament win over Louisville to reach the Final Four. She torched Notre Dame again for 19 in that last loss of 2018-19.

This season she played well against Baylor, but was less than ineffective offensively against Tennessee, Oregon and South Carolina.

The problem has been passiveness. Against those three teams, she got to the free throw line just once. For a player with a first step that almost no one can guard, a player who has demonstrated her ability to get deep into the lane, that’s unacceptable.

Auriemma said after the poor offensive effort against Tennessee, “I never worry about Christyn scoring.”

Perhaps it’s time he did.

Someone needs to convince Williams that she is practically unguardable when she attacks the basket. Convince her that she can get her shoulders by nearly any defender in the nation and score, or get fouled, or maybe even have her shot blocked. But even if that happens, she is still drawing defensive attention from her teammates.

I’m sure she has been told this, more than once. But it has not stuck.

Much too often she lets any defensive move to stop her in the paint, or she drifts around the three-point line (where she’s had trouble most of the year). She has so much more to offer, and that passivity hurts her team offensively.

Williams needs to look at the Notre Dame film and emulate herself. She has a ton of talent that she is wasting by being tentative. And it has severely hurt her team in the last two weeks.

A sellout crowd of over 18,000 was on hand at Colonial Life Arena to watch No. 1 South Carolina beat UConn. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.
A sellout crowd of over 18,000 was on hand at Colonial Life Arena to watch No. 1 South Carolina beat UConn. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.

What is the solution for “nervous” play?

Asked how to explain a two-point-quarter performance by his team, Auriemma said, “I think they were just too nervous.” Which I translate as “they let 18,000 fans and a national television game take away their drive and toughness.” It is awfully late in the season for this team to react that way.

Yes, they are just young women, 18-22. But they have all been on the national stage before. They all chose to come to UConn, with its outsized and unfair expectations.

If they cannot get over their nervousness and learn to play good teams with the joy and effort they showed in scoring 97 points against Memphis just last week, then their season will end earlier than it has since 1999 and 2005, when they lost in the Sweet 16.

I have no idea how to make that happen. The Husky coaches obviously know everything I have written (they have said so all year), and have done everything in their considerable experience to give Walker and Williams confidence. Yet, it has not worked in the most important moments.

Staley and her staff have made it happen for her freshmen, and the Gamecocks look like a genuine contender, despite their youth.