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Can Auriemma find a new formula for UConn to succeed this season?

Aaliyah Edwards elevates to score. UConn Athletics photo.
Geno Auriemma must reinvent a plan for the season, just three weeks in. UConn Athletics photo.

UConn is in trouble. Even if they had not lost two key players for the season, with two more in recovery (or not), rarely has a Geno Auriemma-coached team looked so ineffective on both sides of the ball as they have so far.

Trouble in Storrs (on the road)

This was to be the year of fantastic outside shooting and efficient, effective post play. The Huskies were going to press on defense with their surfeit of guards, Aaliyah Edwards was going to become an All-American, and 6-5 freshman Jana El-Alfy was going to become the program’s next great center.

Just weeks in, every part of that plan needs to be scrapped, and the offense and the defense changed from both the expectations of this year, and the past practices of years of UConn dominance.

The epidemic of injuries the team suffered all last season has returned with devastating effect already, as talented guard Azzi Fudd, who had just returned from sitting out last year with injury, is out for the season again with another one. Guard Caroline Ducharme, another elite scorer, has been a day-to-day scratch since a series of concussions suffered midway through the 2022-23 campaign.

El-Alfy – expected to be the dominant big this year – ruptured her Achilles playing for the Egyptian National Team over the summer, and will miss the entire season.

The post

The Huskies have no post game. The defensive schemes that were so effective last year will be no good in 2023-2024, because of the injuries. The expectation of 10 made threes (and 25 attempts) each game is no longer even a dream.

“We’re not the biggest team in the country,” assistant coach Jamelle Elliott said before the start of the season. “We’re not [even] the biggest team that we’ve had in several years now.”

With the graduation of Dorka Juhasz’s size, smarts, rim protection, and offensive contributions (14.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 50 percent shooting), UConn needed a post player to keep teams from focusing entirely on Edwards.

With El-Alfy unavailable, the coaches hoped that 6-3 redshirt-freshman Ice Brady would be that post player, but thus far, she has not shown even a glimmer of meeting that need.

In losses to unranked NC State and No. 2 UCLA, the Huskies have been out-rebounded   41-29 and 44-36. Opponents have grabbed 64 offensive rebounds to their 59. Edwards has been ineffective in both games, despite her history of playing brilliantly.

Brady has recovered from a patella fracture, but has not been much help (so far) in the paint. She has just 13 rebounds and 15 points in 69 minutes of play.

Ayanna Patterson, a 6-2 sophomore with excellent rebounding instincts, is recovering from knee surgery, and has yet to play this season.

Senior Aubrey Griffin, while an outstanding athlete, is just 6-1, and cannot play anything like a pure post position. Her athleticism allows her to be an excellent opportunistic rebounder, but that was easier when Juhasz and Edwards kept the opposing bigs busy.

Aaliyah Edwards elevates to score. UConn Athletics photo.

Edwards is among the most talented posts in the nation – perhaps an All-American. A highly-skilled perimeter defender, her athleticism allows her to hedge and recover to the paint. But teams with big interior players have been able to double-team her and challenge whoever else is designated as a forward to beat them.

Edwards has shot nearly 60 percent for her career, averaging 18 points and nine rebounds per game over the last two seasons. She can both post up and drive from the elbow with power and efficiency. Perhaps as important as all this talent is her continued good health. She is the only returning player who played in every game last season.

But Edwards was supported by Olivia Nelson-Ododa for two years, and Juhasz last year. Now she is effectively alone in the paint, and tall teams have taken advantage.

To some extent, Griffin has been able to score in this scenario. But UConn needs effective play from at least two post players. Edwards to be a primary force. Without anyone to take the defensive pressure off her, the senior has not been able to play like her past self.

Furthermore, the team’s pathetic rebounding numbers will probably force her to stay inside more, robbing the Huskies of her versatility in their defensive scheme. Unless, of course, she gets some help.

Brady will have to become really good to keep her team from spiraling down into mediocrity. She will have to become the final rim protector in the defense, and score at a high percentage. She will also need to do that down low, and not roaming around the arc and shooting threes (even though she has made 2-5 in four games).

A top-five recruit in 2022, Brady missed all last season with a ruptured patella (knee cap). Although she was able to observe practice and games for a full season, so far she has looked like a promising freshman: sometimes really good, sometimes lost and tentative. Knowing he needs her, Auriemma has given her extensive playing time, but so far she has been inconsistent, and not apparently willing (or is it allowed) to anchor the paint.

But wait, what about 6-5 junior Amari DeBerry? She has size. She has athleticism. Yet, she is rarely on the floor. Auriemma has buried her on the bench since she arrived in Storrs, even though she had 18 blocks and 43 rebounds in a team-low 212 minutes of playing time last season.

Based on 27 years covering UConn basketball, I can only assume that Auriemma is unimpressed with DeBerry’s practice habits. Yet for this team to thrive, they will need better post presence. DeBerry’s athleticism is undeniable, and in these days of the transfer portal, she has shown remarkable loyalty.

Perhaps this a time when Auriemma needs to flex a bit, though any time I criticize a coaching decision of the greatest women’s basketball coach of all time, I do feel some trepidation. Some players just need actual playing time to develop. Some never quite get the focus needed to practice in an ideal way. The team needs DeBerry on the court. She might become a true rim-protector. That will not happen without some playing time.

The guards (who are left)

Outside the paint, the Huskies believed preseason that they would likely have the most intimidating guard corps in the country. Before the season began, associate head coach Chris Dailey discussed the benefit of this abundance: “I think with the guards that we have, I think we’re going to press more.”

“I think we’ll run more. When you have more bodies to play, you have to do something to be able to play all those bodies and that’s by pressing. Although kids say they want to press and run. But do they really? Because it’s hard and it’s a lot of effort. But this group has seemed to embrace it.”

The team began the year with eight talented guards. Then, suddenly and tragically, there were seven. Fudd tore her right ACL in practice a week ago, and the timetable for Ducharme’s return is unknown.

So, for another year, Fudd and running mate Paige Bueckers will not be on the court together – a match made in heaven through brilliant recruiting, that has faltered on the training table. And the loss of one of the nation’s best scorers immediately changed the entire dynamic of the team.

Then, just days later, there were six guards. Ducharme, who was in and out of the lineup following a concussion for much of last season, missed Saturday’s game with “neck spasms.” It seems her playing time might be limited all season, the sequelae of her head injury.

“When Caroline’s got it going, I might play her 39 minutes,” Auriemma said recently. “And when she looks a little bit off, then I’ve got to try to figure out what am I going to do about it.” (Emphasis added).

Three games into the schedule, UConn suddenly had just two experienced guards in Bueckers and Nika Muhl, severely curtailing their ability to spread the floor.

Paige Bueckers has returned to point guard duties this year, after missing the 2022-2023 season with injury. UConn Athletics photo.

Bueckers was the best player in the nation as a freshman, and sat out most of the last two years with injury. But this season she has returned to health smarter, stronger, and -according to Auriemma – “better than she was before.” Her play so far has proven his contention. Although her 3-pointer has been rusty, she has not been shy in drives to the basket, scoring at a .519 clip. Her remarkable court vision and ability to deliver the ball to teammates is still highlight-reel stuff. If she stays healthy, only a few players can claim to be as skilled.

Remaining healthy isn’t a given, however, as Auriemma has already had to renege on a promise to play her less minutes, as she recovers from an ACL tear. That concerns him. Bueckers has played 30 or more minutes in the last three contests, but almost no one else is an offensive threat.

Muhl stepped up last season and emerged as one of the nation’s best point guards, breaking Sue Bird’s school single-season assist record by 53 assists (284). On the other side of the ball, Muhl won Big East Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive year.

But with Bueckers’ return, will Muhl be able to adjust to being “the other point guard?” That is one of many challenges facing the coaching staff. With their preseason abundance of guards, Auriemma could have let Bueckers and Muhl each lead a rotation. Now, they are likely to play together a lot, and will have to adjust to sharing the point.

Muhl has not shown herself to be a prolific scorer, though both her total points and shooting percentage are up in the first four games. Certainly teams are not double-teaming her beyond the arc, as they did to Fudd.

The remaining guards, other than little-used sophomore Ines Bettancourt, are freshmen: KK Arnold, Ashlyn Shade, and Qadence Samuels.

KK Arnold has been an energetic bright spot for the Huskies. UConn Athletics photo.

Arnold, ESPN’s No. 6 recruit and also a point guard, arrived in Storrs confident and quick. She has been one of the few good-news stories of this season, playing extended minutes with occasional brilliance. Auriemma is excited about her skillset.

“KK, she’s kind of electric,” he said. “She has an explosiveness about her. She’s a difference maker in that we don’t have anybody else like her on the team. We haven’t had anybody else like her since the days of Moriah [Jefferson] and Crystal [Dangerfield].”

Arnold is strong for a freshman, and has finished, mostly on drives at a team-leading .548 pace. She has taken just five 3-pointers, but hit three of them. Her 23 minutes per game is fifth on the team.

Freshman guard Ashlyn Shade has shown confidence, high basketball IQ, a decent shooting touch, and a willingness to drive to the basket. She is also now a starter, something she could not have imagined in September. She is not, however, a three point threat.

The third freshman, 6-0 Qadence Samuels, has shown a three point touch, but despite her athleticism, often seems clueless on defense. This has limited her playing time, but she is certain to get more as she adjusts to college life.

Few teams play as challenging an early season schedule as the Huskies. Most years, they battle through those early contests undefeated. Certainly, the preseason expectation was that they would repeat that dominance.

Where to?

Instead, UConn’s nightmare season raises the possibility that the team will fall out of the Top 25 for the first time since1993 (a record 567 weeks).

“Basically, UCLA defended one player and was content to let anyone else have any shot they wanted and they didn’t make any,” Auriemma said after a drubbing by the No.2 team. “… Other people are going to have to step up and have to make shots.”

“We have to find a way to get some sort of cohesiveness on offense, we look disjointed a lot of times. I’ve got to fix that.”

UConn needs to fix nearly everything. They need scoring. They need perimeter defense (UCLA hit 12-25 threes). And that means building anew for the players they have now. It means the four freshmen will need to mature quickly if the Huskies are to remain in the national mix.

The Xs and Os of the past won’t work with the remaining talent on this team. Can Auriemma change those things – that have worked for so many seasons – and create a way for this team to excel?

Why us?

This UConn program has suffered a remarkable number of non-contact injuries over the last three years – far more than other major programs. Perhaps it is time to dismiss the “bad luck” theory, and question whether there is something that needs to be changed in the strength and conditioning program in Storrs.

Certainly other top programs have top players injured in 2023: Olivia Miles of Notre Dame and Mackenzie Holmes of Indiana (last season) come to mind easily. But no top 25 program has had more injuries than the Huskies over the last three seasons.

To be clear, other than the year after year repetition of leg, ankle and knee injuries, nothing objective indicates that the Huskies are doing anything wrong. But, on the other hand, are other programs doing different things right to avoid injury?

The question may have a neutral answer, but needs to be asked, and we at Women’s Hoops World are not the only ones. As WNBA star Diamond DeShields tweeted after Fudd’s latest injury was announced: “Who the strength coach there….? Cuz wtf.”

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