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Exhibition Preview: UConn women’s basketball vs. Jefferson Rams

Three things to watch for in the Huskies’ preseason opener.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn women’s basketball will take the court for its first competitive game of the season when the Division II Jefferson Rams come to Gampel Pavilion. With that comes a tendency to overreact to every little thing that happens, something head coach Geno Auriemma admits he does himself.

“We’ve had a number of exhibitions over the years that have gone really well and we’ve had a whole bunch that have gone really poorly where I’ve come out of exhibitions going ‘This is the worst team I’ve ever had.’ Neither of them are true,” he laughed.

However, that doesn’t mean these games are totally useless. Stat lines can be deceiving but there’s still plenty that can be taken from the preseason. Here are a few things to watch for on Sunday afternoon:

Who’s the fifth starter?

Crystal Dangerfield, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Megan Walker and Christyn Williams are all going to start every game this season, barring injury. However, the fifth spot is still a question mark. So far, there’s no obvious answer and it’s possible it changes game-to-game depending on who had a good week of practice, matchups, etc.

Even before the NCAA denied Evina Westbrook’s waiver, Anna Makurat was the odds-on favorite.

“She’s not really a freshman. She’s a much more mature basketball player than any basketball could ever be because of her playing experience,” Auriemma said. “I think if you asked the players, they would tell you that she’s earned their confidence right away. They trust her, they believe in her, they see the value that she’s gonna have.”

In terms of X’s and O’s, Makurat would fit well into the lineup with the other four starters. Nelson-Ododa will play center and Walker will hold a flexible stretch-four role while Dangerfield and Williams playing around the perimeter. Makurat’s size at 6-foot-2 allows her go inside when necessary but she also possesses the skills to play guard as well.

However, Auriemma might want to go with a more experienced player to early in the season and then bring Makurat off the bench. In that case, Kyla Irwin is the only returning player not mentioned above to start a game last season while grad transfer Evelyn Adebayo is a veteran option as well.

Has Nelson-Ododa’s offense developed?

When Katie Lou Samuelson went down with a back injury in the second-to-last game of the regular season, UConn turned to Nelson-Ododa to step into the starting lineup. During that four-game stretch, she proved herself to be an elite defender and rebounder, averaging 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game in that span.

Now with Samuelson and Napheesa Collier gone, we’ll see how much Nelson-Ododa’s offensive game improved over the summer. Last year, the sophomore mostly played with her back to the basketball but flashed a mid-range jumper and the ability to drive. Williams also noted that Nelson-Ododa has been working on her three-point shooting as well.

Against a Division II opponent, Nelson-Ododa’s point totals won’t be as important as where she gets those points. Jefferson’s tallest player is just 6-foot-1 — four inches shorter than UConn’s center. Nelson-Ododa could easily bully her way down low to double-figures. But can she can show off a consistent jumper and drive to the rim? That remains to be seen.

How are the freshmen utilized?

Both with UConn and in the sport of basketball as a whole, the lines between positions are becoming more and more blurred. For the Huskies, there’s usually a point guard and then four other spots that all have their own roles and responsibilities built around each players’ respective strengths and weaknesses.

Gabby Williams came to UConn as a guard but Auriemma used her as a center despite her 5-foot-11 frame. Katie Lou Samuelson was an elite three-point shooter that Auriemma challenged to become more involved in the post. Megan Walker was more of a backcourt player in high school but is now deployed as a forward for the Huskies.

In simple terms, a player’s positional label doesn’t mean much. Because of this, it’ll be interesting to see how Auriemma uses the two freshman, Aubrey Griffin and Makurat. Griffin has good size and length at 6-foot-1 to go with elite athleticism, but her basketball skills are still a bit of an unknown.

As for Makurat, while she almost exclusively played around the arc in Poland, she could be more effective as a forward/wing. On film, Makurat showed a willingness to rebound and her strong build would certainly play in the post. At the same time, Auriemma likes versatile bigs, something that would make Makurat’s passing and shooting abilities attractive in the post.

For the freshmen, the first exhibition game is mostly a way to get their feet wet. But considering both have unique skill sets, it’ll be fun to see the beginning of Auriemma’s plan for how to deploy the two of them.