With Azura Stevens declaring for the WNBA Draft on Monday, the outlook for the 2018-2019 UConn women’s basketball season changes dramatically. Before her departure, the Huskies were probably slated to be in the top five at the start of the season.
Now, it’s easy to see UConn slipping further down after losing three of its top six players without obvious replacements on the roster or in the freshman class. The Huskies’ younger players will need to make significant improvements over the summer or Geno needs to bring in a grad transfer or two to have a team even near their typical standards.
The biggest hole for UConn next season is now in the frontcourt, where Napheesa Collier is the Huskies’ only returnee with Stevens and Gabby Williams departing. While Collier, a two-time All-American, should be one of the best players in the country next season, she can’t carry the load in the paint by herself. Without a second post threat, teams will be able to key in on Collier and double her without the risk of leaving someone else open.
Currently, UConn really only has two in-house options to replace Stevens.
One option is redshirt sophomore Batouly Camara, who transferred in from Kentucky. Camara battled a knee issue at the start of the year and never seemed to get on track after missing much of the preseason.
She did show flashes of ability at the end of few games towards the end of the season as a tenacious rebounder and defender with offensive upside. Camara is also UConn’s strongest player in the post, something it badly lacked against Notre Dame in the Final Four. With a full healthy preseason, it’s not unrealistic to see her take on a sizable role next season.
Additionally, sophomore Kyla Irwin is one of the few bench player to see non-garbage time minutes, averaging the most of any non-Stevens and Megan Walker reserve. Despite making gains between her freshman and sophomore year, Irwin does not appear to have the athleticism to play defense or rebound effectively against elite post players.
However, offensively, she can shoot the ball from three while finding moderate success in the low block. Auriemma has also praised her work ethic and Irwin is well-regarded as a teammate, so it’s possible she could make the leap, although it doesn’t seem likely.
The Huskies will also be bringing in Olivia Nelson-Ododa, a 6-foot-4 freshman rated as the No. 5 player in ESPN’s 2018 rankings. The Winder, GA native is a long, athletic post presence with a propensity for blocking shots. Her athleticism was on full display at the Powerade Jam Fest when she dunked with ease.
The concern with Nelson-Ododa is that freshmen typically don’t have big roles their first season at UConn, especially early in the year, as they get adjusted to the college game and the rigors and expectations of this program. The Huskies may need Nelson-Ododa to break the norm and give them qualities minutes from the start, otherwise they will be in a lot of trouble down low.
Auriemma could also bring in a graduate transfer to fill the void. Texas A&M’s Anriel Howard would be an option as the 6-foot-1 forward got her release and is reportedly looking for “a Power 5 school that has a chance to compete for a National Championship.” UConn has brought in just three transfers in school history and never a grad transfer. But this could be the exception if the coaching staff does not feel confident in their internal options.
While Kia Nurse is certainly a huge loss in the backcourt, the Huskies have enough options to replace her that the situation is nowhere near as worrisome as the frontcourt.
UConn already has Samuelson cemented in place and the rising senior is expected to be one of the top players in the country once again. Like Collier, the coaching staff has a good understanding of what they’ll get from Samuelson next season.
Crystal Dangerfield should also make a sizable leap next season as long as she can overcome the shin splints that hampered her all season. The injury prevented her from practicing most of the second half of the year and stunted her development. Early on, Dangerfield reached double-digit scoring in her first five games, while leading the team in scoring twice in that span. With a full season of health and practice, Dangerfield should be a top scoring option while also being one of the best point guards in the nation.
The most logical option to replace Nurse is freshman Megan Walker, the top recruit coming into last season who flashed ability at times but too often found herself in Geno’s doghouse. She certainly has the talent, it’s just a matter of playing more consistently while putting it together mentally.
For the third time in four years, UConn will be bringing in the top player in the nation in Christyn Williams. She should see some minutes early on and from there, it’s a matter of how quickly she adjusts to the college game.
She is described by ESPN as a “Left-handed combo-guard manufactures, delivers off the dribble; attacks rim, draws contact, delivers at the charity stripe; developing deep threat game completes the package for next level impact.” The Huskies will need to her to play early on as a guard option off the bench, although she won’t have the same pressure that fellow freshman Nelson-Ododa does.
Sophomore Molly Bent and freshmen Mikayla Coombs and Lexi Gordon are all in the same boat as neither player has done much to show they’ll be part of next season’s plans. With a strong summer and preseason, they can certainly work their way into the rotation though.
It’s likely UConn’s run of pure dominance, especially since the 2013-2014 season, a span in which the Huskies are 188-3, with all three loses coming in overtime, may have come to an end. In all likelihood, UConn will lose multiple regular season games, and could even drop a conference contest.
Maybe Auriemma and his staff do a great job of developing the end of their bench and a handful of those players make a leap into solid rotational players and the freshmen make immediate impacts. It’s also not out of the realm of possibility that none of the young players step up and Collier, Dangerfield and Samuelson are the only impact players on the roster but that everything works out just fine.
Next year, it’s fair to expect Walker and one of the other bench players to become a starter-level player while at least one of the freshmen contributes from the start. It would be a shock to see the Huskies fall outside of the top 10 and they’ll still probably compete for a Final Four. They just aren’t the overwhelming favorite that we’ve known them to be.
There’s still a long time until November comes around. But next season is certainly shaping up to be one of the most intriguing in years.