The 2018 Paradise Jam should provide an interesting challenge for the UConn women’s basketball team. While none of their three opponents in the round-robin tournament will keep head coach Geno Auriemma up at night, the format might. The Huskies will play three games in three days, a rarity at this point in the season.
Granted, the conference tournament requires UConn to play back-to-back-to-back games, but they get a week and a half off to rest up before their next game — usually against the 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now? The Huskies will have just three days off before a midweek test against DePaul. A few days later, the team will gear up for a battle with a stacked Notre Dame squad.
UConn’s five starters can’t be expected to carry the load through that stretch. That means the Huskies’ much-maligned bench will need to eat up minutes in the US Virgin Islands.
It helps that they aren’t playing the strongest teams. Last year, Ole Miss, St. John’s and Purdue went a combined 51-48, not exactly a murderer’s row of opponents. All the games are likely to be blowouts tilted in the Huskies’ favor, giving Auriemma more flexibility in using his bench.
He can rotate one or two players in at a time — like he wants to use his bench as the season goes on — and give them more minutes with the other starters than they would usually get. Or he can pull his starters from the game earlier, say in the early-to-mid third quarter instead of the fourth quarter. Either way, players 6-11 will see the court plenty in this tournament.
There’s plenty of roles still up for grabs on this team. The Huskies need a big off the bench to spell Napheesa Collier and step in if she gets into foul trouble. Auriemma has often praised Kyla Irwin’s work ethic, while Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Batouly Camara have shown flashes of talent.
In the backcourt, Mikayla Coombs is a former McDonalds’ All-American who struggles with her confidence. Molly Bent has the ability to play a Saniya Chong- or Kelly Farris-esque role, but has issues with turnovers and fouls. Lexi Gordon brings 3-point shooting ability.
Everyone on the bench has talent — they wouldn’t be at UConn otherwise — but they’ve struggled to put it all together. Auriemma doesn’t need them to be superstars, just role players.
“All we need from them is to come in and give us a minute here, a minute there, two minutes here, two minutes there and if we can do that, I think it’ll be a huge help,” he said after the Ohio State game.
UConn has as good a starting five as any team in the country. To put them over the top at the end of the year, they really only need two, maybe three players to step up off the bench and contribute. There may be plenty of time until March, but there’s no better opportunity for the reserves than this week at the US Virgin Islands.