Barring one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport, the UConn women’s basketball team will once again finish undefeated in conference play for what will be the sixth-straight season.
The Huskies have only come close to losing once in the American, a three-point victory at Tulane in 2017. This year the best challenger, USF, has been snakebitten with injuries to their top three players. When USF comes to Gampel Pavilion on Sunday, they’ll be sporting just a 10-6 record instead of a top-25 ranking.
Ever since the Big East sold its naming rights and became the American, UConn’s conference season has just become one long tune-up for the NCAA Tournament in March.
“The general focus has always been what do we need to do to get ready for March? And that hasn’t changed,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Whether it was Houston last weekend or Cincinnati this week or USF this weekend, it’s not going to affect our practices day to day.”
When Auriemma talks about trying to improve the team, he doesn’t mean they need to rebound better, shoot better or stop dribble penetration better, to use his examples. Geno isn’t worried about something like rebounds per game dipping in conference play.
“It’s more the eye test when you look at our team. You can see the games where you go ‘Wow this team’s really good’ then you show up at a game and watch us play for 40 minutes and go ‘They won today but it didn’t look good. Didn’t look right. They still have a lot of work to do,’” he explained. “I’m not talking about the actual spread of the game. I’m talking about passing the eye test every single night.”
So what is Auriemma looking for in particular?
“Sometimes the ball just stops moving, what do we do about that? Sometimes the way we execute at both ends of the floor is inconsistent. What are we going to do about that? Sometimes the tempo of the game isn’t what we want it to be and we don’t do anything about it. What are we going to do about that?”
In Auriemma’s championship experience — and there’s plenty of it — “championship teams” play on a certain spectrum that’s different than the rest of the country.
“When championship teams are really good, they’re flat out great and everybody knows it and everyone can see it and everyone can feel it just watching them play,” he said. “And then when there’s a little bit of a dip, those championship teams are really good. And on their worst days, they’re good.”
But when talking about this year’s team, they aren’t quite at that level... yet.
“On the spectrum, we’ve been in some games we’ve been really good,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen us play like some of the teams in the past, where we’ve played an amazingly great game where you can just look at us and say ‘That team has no flaws. That’s a great team.’ But we’ve played some really really good games.”
Being in-between is uncharted territory for UConn. For the last five years, the team that showed up to preseason wasn’t much different than the one that was playing in March. Three times they won the national championship. Two times they lost in the Final Four.
But go back six years and take a look at that team, the 2012-13 squad. They were not a finished product in October, much like this year’s Huskies. It took until March for that team to finally click and one they did, nobody could stop them on their way to the national championship. There’s nothing wrong with having some work to do.
“Just because you can get a lot better doesn’t automatically equate that you’re not very good,” Auriemma said. “But in the world that we live in, you’re either really really good or you’re bad, there’s no in-between. Sometimes it’s ok to be in between.”
UConn is no stranger to having former No. 1 recruits on their roster. The Huskies have three on the team right now: Senior Katie Lou Samuelson, sophomore Megan Walker and freshman Christyn Williams. Samuelson has proven herself as one of the best players in the country. Williams is arguably the top freshman in the nation.
Then there’s Walker. The Virginia native’s time at UConn has been far from smooth. She had an up-and-down freshman season that involved a benching before she established herself as a starter this year. But as a sophomore, she’s been inconsistent and has drawn a lot of ire from fans expecting her to perform like the other two top recruits.
There’s a reason for that, according to Auriemma.
“Megan didn’t play enough minutes last year to be able to do what [Napheesa Collier] and Lou did as sophomores. It’s not the same scenario. With Meg, it’s a process of learning how to play 30 minutes when you’re not necessarily the best player on the floor and how you fit into that and that takes time.”
Walker’s best game in her career was against Cincinnati, according to Auriemma, where she grabbed eight rebounds and scored eight points. It was the type of performance the Huskies need from her on a regular basis.
“I thought she was great the other night, better than she’s been maybe all year,” Auriemma said. “She was great. I hope she can do that again and again and again. That would elevate us more than anything you can imagine if we knew we were going to get that type of effort, that type of work from her.”