With its first exhibition game less than two weeks away, UConn women’s basketball is still left wondering if Evina Westbrook will be eligible to play this season. The Huskies filed a waiver that would allow the Tennessee transfer to play immediately but are left to wait in the dark for the NCAA’s decision.
“We don’t know anything,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Sending a waiver to the NCAA is like making a phone call or writing a letter to the DMV — it’s anybody’s guess when you’re going to get a response.”
This is the first time UConn has filed a waiver for a player. When Batouly Camara and Azura Stevens transferred in prior to the 2016-17 season, the Huskies didn’t even bother to file one because they felt there wasn’t a strong case and the NCAA was just beginning to become more lenient about approving waivers.
When Westbrook first committed, she seemed to have a strong argument considering Holly Warlick, her coach at Tennessee, was fired. However, the NCAA tightened its waiver policy in June which makes the entire situation more complicated. Even so, Auriemma expressed cautious optimism in Westbrook’s case.
“I feel good about it, I do. I feel good about it,” he said. “I mean, everything I read the last few years is ‘student-athlete welfare.’ I hear that all the time.”
While the NCAA doesn’t exactly make the waiver process public, Auriemma did pull back the curtain a bit in terms of what goes into the request.
“All you can do is put down on paper: ‘This is what happened, this is my scenario, this is my situation,’ and that’s it,” he said. “You’re not going to go there and have a hearing. You’re not going to be able to bring somebody with you and plead your case, it’s not like that. You try to get as much information as you can, put it all in front of them and then cross your fingers. That’s the best I can tell you.”
The uncertainty leaves Auriemma and his staff in a tough situation. They want to give Westbrook enough time in practice where she’ll be ready to go if the waiver does get approved. But at the same time, they don’t want her to take valuable practice time away from another player who will see the court this season in the event the waiver is denied.
Even if she does get the go-ahead, Auriemma noted that Westbrook’s knee surgery is also a factor that might impact her ability to get acclimated.
“We haven’t seen her play,” Auriemma said. “So in practice, she’s still not 100 percent from surgery. So we haven’t seen what she can do. We’ve seen a little bit here and there but regardless of waiver, no waiver, I don’t think we’re going to figure that one out until she’s been here a couple months and obviously practiced and got 100 percent healthy. Right now she’s not there.”
3x3 vs 5x5
UConn sophomores Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams spent much of the summer playing 3-on-3 basketball with Team USA. The two helped lead the US to gold in the PanAm Games while Williams continued on by playing with the national team in the inaugural FIBA 3x3 Women’s Series.
3x3 features different rules than regular basketball besides the number of players on the court. It’s only played in half-court and features a 12-second shot clock. The team that leads after 10 minutes or reaches 21 points (whichever comes first) is the winner.
Last season Williams had a strong freshman season, starting in every game. However, much of her impact came on offense. In November assistant coach Shea Ralph characterized Williams’ defense as “in between not bad and sucks.” Williams felt that the 3x3 forced her to become a better defender.
“There’s no helpside (defense),” Williams explained. “So you have to keep the person in front of you. It’s a lot easier in 5-on-5.”
Nelson-Ododa didn’t make as significant of an impact as her classmate. However, the center broke out during the AAC Tournament while filling in for the injured Katie Lou Samuelson and is expected to be a critical piece for UConn this season. Nelson-Ododa is already an elite defensive player, so her takeaway from 3x3 was different than Williams’.
“It’s definitely a different pace than five-on-five,” Nelson-Ododa said. “I would say it’s much quicker. You have to think faster, react faster. You don’t really have time to set things up. So I think in the aspect of just thinking quicker and moving the ball faster, working on more offensive moves and stuff, it’s different than the five-on-five games.”
Coaches earning their paychecks
It’s safe to assume UConn probably has one of the highest-paid coaching staffs in the country and for good reason. The Huskies are the premier program in women’s college basketball and have reached 12-straight Final Fours, to name just a few accomplishments.
But so far, this year’s edition of the Huskies are making the coaches earn every penny.
“This is not an exaggeration, our staff hasn’t had to work — at what we’re doing right now — this much in the last six years because we think we can move from Tuesday to Wednesday and then we show up Wednesday we will realize that no, we can’t. It’s taken a lot of time, a lot of effort,” Auriemma said.
The reason? UConn only returns three established contributors from last season: Crystal Dangerfield, Megan Walker and Williams. Nelson-Ododa still needs to prove she can perform on a consistent basis while Evelyn Adebayo, Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat are all unproven.
While Auriemma can be quick to motivate his players, he’s surprisingly okay with the pace things are moving at the moment.
“Don’t get me wrong, they’ve been great. The players have been great,” he said. “I have surprised myself with how patient I am. And I think they appreciate that. And I think they also appreciate that I’m patient until I’m not. And then when I’m not, I’m not.”
“Maybe I’m not as good a teacher as I used to be.”