Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies are loaded with talent this season.
All five starters from the 2021 Final Four team return, along with all but one of the supporting cast from their 28-2 season.
Then there are the newcomers: Dorka Juhasz, a 6-4 Big Ten first team selection last year, and a freshman class including the No. 1 (guard Azzi Fudd), 5 (guard Caroline Ducharme), 15 (post Amari DeBerry) and 30 (guard Saylor Poffenbarger) players in ESPN’s rankings.
Five Huskies are on the pre-season Wooden Award watch list in Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Aaliyah Edwards and Fudd, and four on the Naismith list (the same group, minus Edwards).
While nine of the 14 players are freshmen (4) and sophomores (5), UConn is extremely young. But that isn’t the question heard on the lips of so many. Rather, it’s how Auriemma can keep everyone happy with playing time, and not inspire them to transfer.
How could having too many good players be a problem? Sure, we have seen years when only six UConn players appeared in big games. And, yes, Auriemma does have a history of shortening his bench dramatically in big games.
But, really, don’t you think that Auriemma – probably the GOAT of college coaches – hasn’t thought of the same thing? Of course he has.
Asked yet again after Sunday’s 64-point pre-season win against Division II Ft. Hays State, Auriemma said, “It’s actually a pretty good problem to have. It wouldn’t be a bad thing, right?”
“We’ve had a couple great, great teams here that were in that situation. It’s not a bad thing,” he said. “I just don’t know right now, how that’s going to play out, whether it’s nine, 10, eight, 11. I don’t know. And it may not be the same all the time. Whoever’s nine might be seven. Whoever’s seven might be nine. Maybe it depends on the game. I don’t know. I think that that’s going to be fun to find out.”
On Friday, Auriemma acknowledged that incorporating so many new players has its down-side as well.
“There’s a plus and a minus to having a lot of people”, he said. “And that is, early in the season, it doesn’t look so good.”
“When you’ve got a lot of players, and you throw them out there, the combinations look goofy and some players don’t fit exactly right with other players. And so that takes a while to get to, and that’s not going to get solved on Sunday [against Arkansas]. That’s for sure.”
By the end of last season, the Husky core group had become one of the best defenses in the country. An infusion of new players is certain to look like a regression on that end of the floor. But probably not for too long.
“The defensive side is one issue for sure,” Auriemma said. “Players over a period of a year learn to trust each other and learn to play together: you know, who you can count on, who you have to cover for, who’s going to make the next rotation, that sort of thing.”
“And then you get young players that you’re going to be throwing in there who have really struggled at times in their careers to play defense at the high school level. No one’s probably really got on them about it. So this is all new for them. For sure. And there’ll be a lot of mistakes made defensively and that’s one another reason why you play the games.”
All of this should serve as a common-sense warning to the diehard Husky fan, that the team, however deep, is unlikely to look smooth and coordinated in the early season. The team faces challenging early matchups: Arkansas today; Minnesota, then possibly South Carolina, Oregon or Oklahoma, at the Battle for Atlantis Tournament (https://www.atlantisbahamas.com/b4a/wb4a), then Notre Dame on December 5.
There could be a loss in there somewhere before New Year’s. The UConn fan(atics) tend to lose their minds on those rare occasions when the team is defeated. But it is important to recall that last season’s loss to Arkansas jolted the team into the focus that led down the road to the Final Four. It also turned out to be their only regular-season loss.
“We’ve talked about [the Arkansas loss] a couple times in the locker room,” senior Chistyn Williams said Friday. “Mainly saying how much we’ve changed and grown from the game, and how it was the turning point of the season.”
All that said, what is the rotation likely to look like early on? Expect the starting group to be Bueckers, Williams, Nelson-Ododa, Edwards, and Evina Westbrook. Sophomore Nika Muhl will certainly get many minutes. Newcomers Juhasz, Fudd, and Ducharme have shown themselves in practice, and in the exhibition game, to be ready to contribute. Sophomore Aubrey Griffin practiced full speed on Friday, and could see limited minutes as she returns from a high ankle sprain.
Who are these players? So much is written about the team, that most of them are familiar names to women’s basketball faithful. Perhaps not so obvious, is the overall size of the current roster. Muhl is the shortest at 5-10. Three players are 6-5. Two of the guards off the bench are 6-2.
Bueckers, a 5-11 sophomore, led UConn in points (20.0), assists (5.79, and a school record 168), steals (2.7), and three-point percentage (.464, fourth nationally). She was the first ever freshman to win the Wooden Award, Naismith Tophy, AP Player of the Year and USBWA Player of the Year. She was the backbone of the Huskies, and, though only a freshman, carried them throughout the season. She took the big shots in the big games, and usually made them.
This year, Bueckers is noticeably stronger. She will still be there in the big moments. But her support will be more talented, and she will not be called on to score as much.
Which is fine with her. “I’m excited”, she said. “Just because I can get more into my passing ways this year I think. But I’m always a person I’ve loved passing way more than I have scoring. So, anytime I can pass, I’m going to pass.”
Most of the time, that’s also OK with her coach.
“I don’t think Paige will ever be the kind of player that needs a lot of shots or wants to take a lot of shots,” Auriemma said recently. “She is a pass-first player. That’s what makes her I think so valuable to the team. And I don’t know that that’s going to change, that she’s a pass first player. But at the same time she understands what we need her to do.”
“If she defers to people that are shooting 45 percent from the three-point line, I’m OK with that. If she’s deferring to people that are shooting 31 percent from the three point line, I’m not okay with that. So, part of growing up is part of understanding, who do I get the ball to, when, and why am I getting it to them? And I think as you get older you start to get a better sense of that.”
As hard as it may be to imagine, Bueckers will be better than last year, when she was one of the best in the game. Auriemma was quick to point out that she is not just a natural talent.
“What people don’t realize is how hard she works,” he said. “Like she might work harder than anybody on the team.”
“Because a lot of people out there would think that she just, you know, this cocky kid who’s just talented and just, you know, you roll the ball out and she’s good. She’s probably won more sprints, and more challenges that [strength and conditioning coach] Andrea Hudy has put them through, than any other kid on the team. That kid works harder than anybody on the team. At everything.”
Williams, a 5-11 senior, burst onto the scene with a 28-point outing against Notre Dame early in her freshman year. She did that largely by using her quickness and athleticism to drive to the hoop. But she got away from that style a bit in her next season, and was skilled but disappointing during the next 24 months, as her confidence waxed and waned, and she began to hang out beyond the three-point line.
Late in the 2020-21 season, she found herself, first as a surprise defensive stopper, then as a versatile scoring threat. She finished the season with 16.3 points per game, and a credible .343 from beyond the arc. Her post-season showed what she could be, as she earned All-Regional honors, and scored 27, 21, and 20 points in the final three games of the year.
Penetrating the lane is her game, and very few players have been able to stop her when she is driving toward the basket. She knows the history, and feels she has gotten back to an aggressive mindset.
“Freshman year, I did drive to the basket,” she said. “That was my thing. But I knew I had to work on my outside game as far as shooting and stuff. So I think I really focused on that. And it kind of hindered me a little bit because that’s all I was focusing on. And last year, I figured you know, getting to the basket is my bread and butter. Why don’t I just get back to that?”
“It’s just one of those things that I had to had to click on my own. And that’s what happened and then my outside shot started flowing and it was just a domino effect. So I know that it’s my bread and butter and y’all will see me being aggressive.”
Westbook, a 6-0 redshirt senior, passed up a likely high draft number in the WNBA to return “for some unfinished business,” in her words. Nothing about her game is flashy, but she is the team’s “Mom”, and the glue on the court.
Second to Bueckers in steals, she averaged 9.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and nearly four threes a game. But it is her even demeanor and basketball IQ that make her an essential part of the team’s success.
Each year, Auriemma has said that 6-5 senior Nelson-Ododa’s play will determine how far UConn can go. To some extent, that has been true. As the team’s only real post for her first two years, and one of two last season, a huge weight has fallen on her shoulders.
Mostly, she has carried that weight. She averaged 12.0 points and 7.8 rebounds last season, was Big East co-defensive player of the year, and dished out 87 assists on the season.
But in the biggest games, against the toughest teams, she has under-performed. She lacks a killer instinct, and she lacks the drive that lifts the game of great players. She scored six points on 3-10 shooting against South Carolina. In the loss to Arkansas, she had two points and two rebounds. In the final three NCAA tournament games, she scored a total of seven points, just one in the loss to Arizona at the Final Four.
Will that change this year? It is hard to tell. She showed no new assertiveness in the exhibition game last week, our only opportunity to see her play so far.
Although she recognizes that the team will need more intensity from her, she is, typically, more reserved and analytical in her assessment of her coming season.
“I’ve used the word intentional,” she said, “and I think that’s certainly a really big key word for me this year.”
“Because I mean, from game to game is going to change you know, expectations from coach in which he needs and you know, from our, for who we’re playing and our opponent. So I think just really going out there, recognizing what I can bring and, and bring that every night just like I said, being intentional about my effort, my intensity and what I can bring to the game.”
It is good to see the word “intensity” in her outlook. If she can regularly bring that intensity every night, she could justify her place on the pre-season lists. If she is content to the talented player she was last year, she could see a chunk of her playing time fall to 6-5 junior transfer Juhasz, who was a Big Ten first team center last year.
Edwards, a 6-3 sophomore, embodies the phrase “power forward.” She plays every minute as if it were her last, and can have an oversized effect on the game. She is efficient scorer, almost entirely within five feet, shooting .689 and averaging 10.7 points in 22 minutes a game. She scored 24 points on 9-10 shooting against Butler last season.
She will need to slow down to improve, in the sense of improving awareness of the flow of the game better. That is, however, likely to come with experience and maturity. She gained some of both as the youngest member of the Canadian Olympic Team last summer.
Edwards brings physical strength and aggressiveness unmatched either on her team, or by most of her opponents. That energy, combined with her efficient shooting and her ability to defend and disrupt on the perimeter, makes her a crucial part of the Huskies hopes.
Among the bench, Fudd, Juhasz and Caroline Ducharme have stood out the most in early going.
Fudd is the most heralded freshman since, well, Bueckers. NBA star Steph Curry has said that she has a perfect shooting form. Auriemma said, “She makes shots. I think because she’s freshmen and because she’s kind of quiet, that she probably hasn’t shown us how aggressive she can be.”
“In the scrimmage [against Boston College], she didn’t hesitate, and she got a lot of shots. And she made a lot,” he said. “So to me, she couldn’t make enough of them. The issue is, can we get her enough? And that’s partly on us and partly on her. And defensively I think she’s really impressed everyone because no one’s ever talked about that aspect. It’s always better to score her ability to shoot. She was telling me the other day that for the longest time in high school she liked being on defense better.”
Muhl, a sophomore, joined a flexible starting rotation midseason, and became an important part of the mix. Though she averaged just 4.9 points in 24 minutes, she is a tough, aggressive defender, a skilled passer (62 assists), and tougher than anyone on the court. Auriemma says she will see lots of playing time “because she plays harder than everybody else.
“She competes harder than other players,” Auriemma said. “She may be physically tougher than the other players. So there’s a lot of things that go into her makeup that separate her from other kids on the team.”
“I think people will probably be surprised if I said that nobody on our team works harder than Paige. But you’d be hard pressed to save the Paige works harder than Nika. So when you work that hard, and you’re that tough, and you’re that fearless, you’re that competitive, things work out for you.”
Juhasz has experience playing at a high level in the Big Ten for two years, and “it shows in the way she approaches the game,” according to her coach. In the exhibition, she showed great footwork, and outstanding low post moves. But she also sunk her first three-point attempt. Her ability to play down low and to draw defenders outside is “part of why I’m really happy to have her here.”
Ducharme, a 6-2 freshman guard, has also impressed, with an ability to get into the paint, and to run the floor.
“She’s been a little bit of a surprise, Auriemma said, “in that the game doesn’t seem. too, too fast. She’s able to use her use her length to get to the basket a lot. And we’ve probably, between her and Christyn, gotten to the rim more times already this year than we did all of last year.”
“She doesn’t need a lot of time. The ball doesn’t spend a lot of time in her hands. So, one, she cuts really hard. Two, when she catches it, it’s up on the rim before the defense has a chance to react. And she makes enough enough threes that she gets open lanes to cut and to drive it.”
These players make up a credible top nine in a rotation that could be even deeper as other talented but inexperienced players develop.
Bottom line: don’t worry about depth. Don’t worry about unhappy players. Auriemma has been here before, just not recently.
“I like when people say ‘you know, Coach, he only likes to play six players,’” Auriemma said after the umpteenth time he was asked. “They don’t remember. We had a lot of good players. We played a lot of players. Back in the day. Yeah, we had a lot of really good players. We played a lot of good players.”
This year, UConn has a lot of really good players. They will play them.