To say Megan Walker underwhelmed in her first season with the UConn women’s basketball team is a bit of an understatement. Despite coming in as the top-rated recruit in the nation, Walker struggled for much of the season, failing to earn a consistent spot in the rotation before getting relegated to the bench for the NCAA Tournament.
Even with some high points — most notably playing 16 minutes and pulling in six big rebounds in the Huskies’ first matchup with Notre Dame — more often than not Walker drew the ire of head coach Geno Auriemma for much of the season.
The trajectory of the 2017 National Gatorade Player of the Year’s freshman season was not unlike point guard Crystal Dangerfield’s first year in Storrs. But after watching the team fall in the Final Four to Mississippi State, Dangerfield returned to school with a newfound confidence and became arguably the most indispensable player on the roster. Now, the junior thinks that Walker can make a similar jump entering her second year.
“She came back with a totally different mindset. I think in this program half the battle is your approach and she’s approached this summer right,” Dangerfield said of Walker. “You just have to get through your freshman year. I hate to say it like that but that’s kind of what it is.”
The low point for Walker during the season was when head coach Geno Auriemma benched her and fellow freshman Mikayla Coombs during a 91-47 romp of Tulane. At the time, Auriemma didn’t explain the decision in much detail. But looking back, he doesn’t regret how he handled Walker during her first season.
“Sometimes you need something like the kind of year (Walker had) last year to remind you that it’s not supposed to be easy, this isn’t high school,” Auriemma said. “I think that’s one of the best things that ever happened to her and I would think she’s going to have a great year this year.”
At the time, not everybody was thrilled with Auriemma’s decision to keep his freshmen on the bench. Some on social media even called for them to transfer. But Walker understands that her coach was simply trying to draw the best out of her. Now, she’s ready to reap the rewards of the tough love.
“A big amount of improvement has been seen by my teammates, coaches and myself. I can feel it in every workout and I’m really happy for that and excited for the season,” Walker said. “[Last season, Auriemma] had high expectations for me and he wants the best. So I’m just listening, taking it all in and just making that change. I feel like this year we’ll see a lot of that.”
Walker’s talent level has never been in question, especially considering the number of accolades she came out of high school with. However, her fitness limited her effectiveness last season.
“Last year sometimes when she’d get tired it would just takeover just how she’d be able to function and the things she’d be able to do for us,” Katie Lou Samuelson said.
By all accounts, Walker has been working hard to make sure her minutes won’t be restricted based on her conditioning, something her teammates have picked up on.
“Meg’s transition from last year to this year by watching her this summer has been completely different than I’ve saw from her at all last year,” Samuelson said. “In individuals and in the running she’s pushing herself as hard as she can and beyond a point I’ve seen and it’s really translated into her game. She’s playing really well in pickup and looks comfortable out there.”
And with that, she can finally impact games the way her team expects her to.
“She’s someone we can count on in all aspects whereas if she got tired last year she was a different player,” Molly Bent said. “She’s a great player now that she has that kind of stamina to back that up.”
While the season is still months away, it’s certainly a good start for the rising sophomore. But with the loss of Kia Nurse, the Huskies aren’t hoping Walker can contribute this season — they need her to. Luckily, that’s certainly not news to her.
“It’s definitely an encouragement knowing what we lost: Two of our best defenders,” Walker said. “It’s encouraging me more to work on my defense, get my foot speed better and improve my three point percentage.”
And if Walker does make that jump, it will be a critical step to helping UConn avoid the dreaded “down year” that many are expecting this season.