UConn looks good, but not like a juggernaut

Olivia Nelson-Ododa. UConn Athletics photo.

This was supposed to be the year the Connecticut Huskies blasted through the women’s basketball world like the teams of old, and reclaimed the National Championship that has eluded them since 2016.

After all, they returned all five starters, who guided them to their 13th consecutive Final Four last season, added all-Big Ten center Dorka Juhasz, and brought in the reputed next best thing since – well – Paige Bueckers, in freshman guard Azzi Fudd. And they have a few other top recruits, too.

Yet, in their first four games (and we concede that is not many), they have not looked like world-beaters. Bueckers had to score a career-high 34 points to get them by a good Arkansas team last month. Senior Christyn Williams needed to pour in 34 to beat an ordinary Minnesota team, and they scraped by with a seven point win over USF in a typically ugly game against the Bulls. (That win looks a lot better since USF defeated No. 9 Oregon and No. 7 Stanford in the following week.)

Then, Connecticut faced a truly experienced, talented team in No. 1 South Carolina, hung tough for 30 minutes, then got blown out 16-4 in the fourth quarter after leading the game late in the third.

It is only four games, but two primary issues have become apparent:

The frontcourt needs improvement

The post, which was supposed to be really good this year with maturity and the addition of Ohio State transfer Juhasz, hasn’t been as good as needed.

To be fair, senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa has been outstanding on defense, even against the Gamecocks – a team which humbled her last season. She has dished out 19 assists, second only to Bueckers. She leads the team with 6.5 rebounds a game, only slightly below her 2020 average (understandable, given the level of the competition).

But she has not been able to score consistently, though she is shooting .647 on just 17 field goal attempts. Whether that is because the guards can’t get her the ball (which happened a lot under the suffocating guard pressure of South Carolina), or because she has struggled establishing position, is still to be seen. As the season progresses, however, she will have to become a reliable scorer inside.

Juhasz has shown some signs that she could fulfill the promise of her Big Ten play, but she does not yet look comfortable in the Huskies’ move-and-react offense. Notably, she has missed a number of passes simply because she didn’t anticipate they might come her way. As she plays more with Bueckers, she should learn. But early in the season, she’s been only OK.

The most disturbing issue in the post is that Aaliyah Edwards has disappeared. The 6-3 sophomore was a dynamo last season, raising the level of energy and presenting an unmovable, and often unstoppable, force on the boards and in the paint. This year she’s just been much less impressive. In 2020 Edwards averaged 10.7 points per game, shot .689, and grabbed 5.7 rebounds – 45 percent of them offensive.

In four games this year, she has just 23 total points and 11 boards. Only one of those rebounds has been on the offensive glass. She is shooting .550, which would be good for most players, but is not what the team needs – or expects – from her.

Is this a sophomore slump? One would hardly expect that after the energy Edwards carried into every appearance a season ago. But watching her, one has to wonder if her busy summer, including a Olympic appearance with Canada, may have left her a little more tired and a little more passive than she was in March.

Aaliyah Edwards. UConn Athletics photo.

Edwards is also is hanging out away from the paint a lot more, which, of course, makes rebounding more difficult. It is reasonable that any post player with WNBA aspirations would be working on including the three-pointer in her offense, because that is what the post has become at the pro level. Coach Geno Auriemma, with his history of developing players for the pros, has encouraged that extension of her offense.

Edwards has attempted (and hit) just one three in her career (against Arkansas), but her positioning seems to have suffered as she tries to make those shots possible. Poor positioning has allowed smaller players to box her out effectively. She seems to be losing herself in the never-land between the elbow and the three-point line.

Removed from the paint, she has been less able either to rebound effectively, or to score in close, where most of her points have come from in the past. Last season, she was a force deep inside, stepping out to set screens and quickly recovering to the low post. Thus far this season, those recoveries too often are either late, or don’t happen at all.

There appears to be a lot less aggression in her play; a lot less willingness to be the strongest player on the floor. Against the Gamecocks, Edwards was regularly boxed out by the smaller Bria Beal. Her only offensive board was a long rebound near the free throw line. She had none in contested areas under the hoop.

“’You know you have one offensive rebound in four games?’” Auriemma said he told Edwards. ‘You used to get one every possession.’”

“I remember one game she had three in one possession. ‘So you need to get back to that. That’s got to be a big part of your game. You’ve got to be that tough guy-enforcer for us. Because you can be. You’ve got to be that guy that can defend three or four different positions, who we know can get an offensive rebound and put it back up.’”

For the Huskies to succeed against the best teams, Edwards will have to do every bit of that.

The back court has been brilliant, but needs a rest

Bueckers, Williams, and Evina Westbrook have all improved from last year, and they have done a remarkable job covering for the lack of scoring from the post.

Westbrook has all-around court skills, and seems always to know exactly what is needed at any point in the game. She has also hit eight of 15 threes (.553, and 80 point improvement) and appears to be even better defensively than last season.

Williams has embraced her ability to penetrate to the hoop. She has improved her shooting by 60 points to .545, and her three point shot has benefitted (up 40 points to .385) from defenders having to sag off to defend the drive. She defends the best opposing guard, and makes their lives miserable.

Paige Bueckers. UConn Athletics photo.

Bueckers is the best guard in college basketball. Against all reasonable expectations, and even after sitting out part of the summer with an injury, she is better and stronger than last year.

The strength of this team was supposed to be its depth. But many worried that Auriemma would not use that depth, relying instead on his starters for lengthy minutes. I dismissed that idea, asserting that the coach knew that he could only continue to stock his roster with great recruits if he actually gave them playing time.

I also reasoned that Auriemma would play the bench early and often, as he has acknowledged that lack of depth hurt his team at times last season.

Perhaps I was wrong.

The Huskies played even with or better than South Carolina for three quarters. They had a lead at halftime, and another late in the third period.

“For 30 minutes, I thought we did everything we set out to do,” Auriemma said after the loss. “And then we just, we just ran out of gas, we just fell apart.”

That they ran out of gas should have been no surprise, and the fault lies with the coaches. By the fourth quarter Bueckers had played 95 out of a possible 110 minutes over three consecutive games of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. Eleven and a half of her 15 resting minutes were in the 20-point blowout of Minnesota on the first day.

It was clear from her body language, and from a couple of uncharacteristic errors, that she was totally gassed by the start of the fourth quarter, during which Connecticut was blasted 16-3.

Bueckers will always be the most active Husky on both offense and defense when she is on the court. She never stops moving on offense, and defends the second (or first) best opposing guard. Against the Gamecocks, she had to chase Zia Cooke or Destanni Henderson around screens for most of of her time on the court, and she had to run them around screens to open up her own shots. She basically ran for 38 minutes and 21 seconds.

Williams played 73 of 80 minutes against USF and South Carolina (where she defended Henderson most of the time, limiting her to 5-15 shooting), and Westbrook played 62 of those 80 minutes.

Is it any wonder that the Huskies’ starting guards were a step slow in the fourth period? Shouldn’t it have been clear that they needed a rest?

Those questions lead directly to another one: Why did Nika Muhl play just 5:08 in the USF and South Carolina games combined? Why has she seen just 33 minutes in the four games this year?

Muhl showed outstanding energy, great defense, and adequate offense last season, particularly as a starter during the last 15 games of the season. She averaged 24.4 minutes, shot .343 from three, had 40 steals, and 62 assists to 44 turnovers.

Yes, this year has started with tough games against very skilled opponents, when most coaches (including the Gamecocks’ Dawn Staley) shorten their bench. But Muhl proved last year, especially in the postseason, that she can face the best and more than hold her own.

Auriemma has acknowledged that Muhl practices and “plays harder than everybody else.” He has described her as supremely “tough,” “fearless,” and “competitive.” She checks all the boxes on his list for how a player earns court time.

Yet she sits. And Bueckers, Williams and Westbrook average over 32.5 minutes a game.

Why the apparent disrespect shown to Muhl? What effect will it have on her? And on the freshmen, seeing a former starter relegated to obscurity?

Clearly, we cannot know those answers. But the questions are real, and the areas they address affected Connecticut’s play in the dreadful fourth quarter of the South Carolina loss.

The Huskies began Big East play against a not very good Seton Hall team last night, and there were signs that the team has addressed the problems noted here during the 11 days since they lost to the Gamecocks.

Muhl played 17 minutes, and was not very effective. But in a 25-point victory, Williams played 36 minutes, and Bueckers 34, so not a lot of rest there.

Edwards looked a bit like the player we knew last season, as she scored 12 points on 6-11 shooting and had seven rebounds – three of them offensive. She appeared to be focused on rebounding, and it showed in her intensity. Juhasz played 15 minutes and grabbed 10 rebounds. She looked more comfortable then she has at any time this season.

But this improvement by the post players needs perspective. The Pirates were not a challenge in the paint, as indicated by the 50-12 advantage Connecticut had in paint points.

The Huskies take on No. 24/25 Notre Dame tomorrow.  If the game is tight, will we see much of Connecticut’s bench?