Things are a bit different this season as compared to last for the UConn women’s basketball team. After losing three All-Americans before last season, the Huskies now have three returning All-Americans in Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams. They are also back at No. 1 to start the season after being picked just No. 3 at this time a year ago.
In Storrs, there’s no such thing as a “rebuilding” year, something they proved last season after an undefeated regular season that ended in the Final Four. UConn reloaded by bringing nearly everybody back while adding an elite recruiting class and two transfers.
Not only is it national championship or bust for the Huskies – that’s the case every year – they’re expected to go undefeated once again. Despite doing so last year and improving, going undefeated is still incredibly hard, even for a Geno Auriemma-coached team.
As always, UConn has a very tough non-conference schedule, beginning with No. 9 Stanford on Sunday in the Countdown to Columbus. The Huskies haven’t lost back-to-back games since the 1993-1994 season, but the Cardinal are no stranger to snapping a UConn streak, when they broke the 47-game streak the team had November 17, 2014.
While last year’s core is back, they still need to gel with the news pieces on the roster. The Huskies have played just two games together, so they will need to figure things out quickly otherwise they could find themselves in trouble early on.
While the losses of Saniya Chong and Natalie Butler are far from insurmountable, they shouldn’t be discounted. Despite struggling over her first three seasons, Chong put it all together for her senior year and became the exact player the Huskies needed. While she didn’t receive the accolades or attention of the other four starters, Auriemma and the rest of the team always made sure to point out her importance.
After two tough seasons in Storrs, Butler decided to transfer to George Mason for her final season. The big never found a solid role with the Huskies and never held consistent minutes. However, she was still valuable as their biggest player, especially last season against Baylor when both Collier and Williams got into foul trouble.
Bringing back practically the entire roster of a team that went undefeated in the regular season lost in overtime of the Final Four would be unfair. Adding the top recruiting class in the nation along with two high-end transfers? Now that should be illegal.
But such is life when you’re the UConn Huskies.
Duke transfer Azura Stevens has drawn the most attention and for good reason. The 6-foot-6 forward is expected to step in as one of the Huskies’ best players despite sitting out last season. While she mostly played wing at Duke, the coaching staff is working to get her more comfortable in the post to take advantage of her size.
Fellow transfer Batouly Camara is still a bit of a mystery. After bruising her knee in practice, Camara missed both exhibition games, so she’s yet to play a game in a UConn uniform. When she does get healthy, Camara will likely be the first post player off the bench to spell Collier and Williams. She’ll give the Huskies some good minutes as a tenacious rebounder and tough defender.
The freshman class is still a work in progress. The transition from high school to college is never easy and that is only magnified at UConn.
“Each one of them has something,” Auriemma said. “We actually have said in practice if we could take the freshmen and take one piece from all four of them and make them into one player, we’d have another Maya Moore. But unfortunately, we can’t do that.”
As of now, Megan Walker appears to play the most minutes of the freshmen this season, which is what you’d hope from the top recruit in the nation. While some highly-touted freshmen struggle early on, Walker doesn’t look like she’ll have that issue.
“Megan is really talented. She’s got a lot of different types of skills,” Auriemma said after the Ashland game. “You saw glimpses of it today. I’m hoping with the way she looks right now, with her and [Azura Stevens], we’ve got two really good players to add to the five that started today.”
Mikayla Coombs has the chance to earn minutes as the backup point guard to Crystal Dangerfield. She didn’t show much in two exhibition games but it’s not an issue of playing at a higher level.
“Mikayla doesn’t have any problem with the pace of things,” Auriemma said. “She reminds me of the way Crystal was last year in practice the first month or so. She’s too worried about being unsure instead of taking advantage of all her talents. So as that starts to go away then we’ll start to see more of that talent.”
Auriemma says that Lexi Gordon has the ability but isn’t ready for the speed of the college game yet.
“Lexi is a really smart kid, very instinctive; She knows how to play, she makes shots, she just has all that,” he said. “She just can’t keep up right now. She just can’t.”
Like everyone else in her class, Andra Espinoza-Hunter showed flashes of potential but didn’t see the court nearly enough in two preseason games to make a judgment on her potential impact this season.
Last year, one of the biggest talking points was the team’s lack of depth. They only had nine eligible players and typically only played six players at most. This led to some issues when injuries arose — such as Saniya Chong early in the season or Kia Nurse before the NCAA Tournament — and the fatigue seemed to wear on the team, especially in the loss to Mississippi State.
This season, UConn features a full 13-player roster along with returning everyone sans Chong and Butler from last season, but just because the Huskies have depth doesn’t mean Auriemma will use it all.
“Having a full bench, for me that’s like having a full toolbox,” Auriemma said after the win over Ashland. “I don’t know how to use any of them. So it doesn’t matter if there’s one screwdriver or it’s full. It’s the same to me, I generally don’t open it.”
The rotation looks to be seven or eight deep. The starting five to start the season will consist of Crystal Dangerfield, Kia Nurse, Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier with Azura Stevens as the sixth-player off the bench.
However, if Stevens explodes to become the player Auriemma expects her to be, it’ll be interesting to see if he can afford to keep her on the bench.
With Stevens locked in as the sixth-player for now, Walker and Camara are in line to be the first guard and big off the bench, respectively. Even with just three quality reserves, that should be enough to spell the starting five enough to keep them fresh throughout the season.
If Dangerfield finds herself in foul trouble or goes down with an injury, Coombs and sophomore Molly Bent would compete for the backup point guard duties. The other two freshmen in Espinoza-Hunter and Gordon could both push for minutes if they improve steadily throughout the season as well.