Over the past few seasons, there haven’t been many question marks surrounding the UConn women’s basketball team. Sure, in 2016-17, we weren’t sure how the Huskies would replace the trio of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck before the season began. But once the games started, it didn’t take long to realize UConn would be just fine.
Last year, were Katie Lou Samuelson or Napheesa Collier that much different from the first game to the last? Not particularly. Crystal Dangerfield regressed due to shin splints as the season went on, while Azura Stevens never developed the outside shooting touch Geno Auriemma raved about in the preseason.
This season, Collier, Dangerfield and Samuelson are sure-things because of how good they are. But as for the other two starters in Megan Walker and Christyn Williams? Neither of them have begun to even scratch the surface of their potential.
Walker has the benefit of already going through an entire season and knowing what to expect from Auriemma. As a former No. 1 recruit, Walker’s talent is undeniable. But to become one of the best players in the country, she needs to work as hard as one of the best players in the country.
“She’s got an awful lot of ability, she can do a whole lot of things,” Auriemma said after the win over Ohio State. “I show her Napheesa all the time and say ‘That’s your role model right there. That’s how you approach this game, with that kind of motor.’ Pheesa goes. With Megan’s talent, if she gets a motor like Pheesa’s and goes, she could be incredible. It wasn’t there last year. It’s there more often this year.”
Williams, meanwhile, is still early in her freshman year and is understandable dealing with freshman struggles.
“In the Ohio State game, she and I talked after the game. She said there were so many opportunities when she had the ball in her hands that she didn’t do anything with,” Auriemma said. “I think when you’re a freshman, you get caught in ‘What play are we running, what should i do?’”
While Zion Williamson of Duke continues to dominate headlines as a freshman, Auriemma sees no reason why Williams can’t do the same.
“I guess my vision of Christyn is, whoever the best freshmen in the country are — men or women — I expected her to be that good every night,” Auriemma said. I asked her that today, I said ‘Man there’s a lot of freshmen getting a lot of time on TV, everybody’s talking about them. That should be you. That’s the way they should be talking about you, like you’re one of the best players in America.’ I guess my expectations for her are really really high. She knows it.”
UConn’s exhibition win over Southern Connecticut was a breakout performance for one of the Huskies’ freshmen, but it wasn’t Williams. It was Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds on the night after failing to record a single point or rebound against Ohio State. It was the type of performance that reminded Auriemma why he recruited her in the first place.
“The first time I ever saw Olivia play for real, she was on the USA basketball team in Spain,” he said. “I thought she competed harder than anybody on that team. She was tough, she ran the floor, she was aggressive in the lane. And then you go watch her play in high school and it’s totally opposite. Then she comes here and today was the first sign I’ve seen of it.”
The Huskies two biggest weaknesses this season are a lack of size and defense. Nelson-Ododa can help with both of those things. She stands at 6-foot-4 and has a wingspan reminiscent of Breanna Stewart and Azura Stevens. The team will need her when they go against the likes of Notre Dame, Baylor and Louisville, all who have size that dwarfs UConn.
But even if she isn’t ready for those games, it’s a long season. With a trio like Nelson-Ododa, Walker and Williams, the team we saw against Ohio State and in the two exhibitions will be nothing like the team we see in March.
And that doesn’t even bring into account the likes of Batouly Camara, Mikayla Coombs or the rest of the bench, who could carve out roles of their own.
It’s not far out of the realm of possibility for both Walker and Williams to become elite players by the end of the season and give the Huskies’ already-stacked starting lineup even more firepower. Nelson-Ododa, meanwhile, doesn’t need to be elite this year, she just has to provide quality minutes off the bench.
There’s a strong chance UConn loses their first regular season game in three years. But unlike the past few years, it’s not about domination for these Huskies. It’s about development. They improve as the season goes on so that they’re a complete different team in March than they are now in December. Because if they don’t, it’ll be yet another painful end to their season.