The Thanksgiving break couldn’t have come at a much better time for UConn women’s basketball. The Huskies were down to just seven healthy players in the second half of their last game against Dayton after Crystal Dangerfield sat out due to back spasms while Anna Makurat left the game after rolling her ankle. Luckily, the holiday gave UConn over a week off from games, which allowed the team to get some much-needed rest.
Makurat is practicing more each day and should be a full participant prior to Thursday barring any setbacks. Head coach Geno Auriemma didn’t speak to her availability against Seton Hall, though Makurat is expecting to play.
“I feel like I’m ready to go right now,” she said.
Dangerfield’s situations is a bit more complicated. She missed the Dayton game with what the team described as back spasms and hasn’t practiced since. Auriemma said she underwent more tests on Tuesday to try and determine the exact problem.
“They’re not quite sure what it is,” Auriemma said. “Hopefully we’ll know more tomorrow. I think the rest is doing her good but it’s just a wait and see right now.”
As the team learned last postseason with Katie Lou Samuelson, back injuries can be tricky, so Dangerfield probably won’t play until she’s 100 percent healthy. However, if she is cleared for Thursday, Auriemma is confident she can step into the lineup despite missing the last week and a half of practice.
“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “If she was a young kid I’d be more concerned but I’m not worried about that part of it.”
Meanwhile, Olivia Nelson-Ododa appears to be recovered from her broken pinky toe — at least from what Auriemma can see.
“She’s fine. I don’t see any signs of it. There’s no limping around, there’s no pain that I can tell,” the coach said. “She hasn’t complained at all, she hasn’t said anything. I’m assuming it’s getting better every day.”
Without Dangerfield in the lineup against Dayton, UConn surprisingly had one of its best offensive performances of the season with 75 points, 53 percent shooting from three and assists on 61 percent of its baskets. Considering Dangerfield’s skills as a distributor and floor general, it doesn’t make much sense that the offense improved without her on the floor. Even Auriemma admitted his biggest worry was how the offense would function without her.
The Ewing Theory doesn’t seem to apply here, so what brought about the offensive outburst? The Huskies used one senior point guard to replace another: Molly Bent. The Centerville, Massachusetts native got her first career start against the Flyers and played a career-high 31 minutes with four points, three steals, two assists and three turnovers. While it’s never ideal to be without Dangerfield, Bent’s start could end up being beneficial in the long-term.
“I thought Molly did a great job. Obviously not an ideal situation for her but this helps her, she gets more and more repetitions,” Auriemma said. “And the more repetitions she gets, the more comfortable she’s going to get and the more she’s going to be able to do. Even when Crystal’s back, whenever that is, it’s going to help Molly be a better player.”
Christyn Williams seemed like a logical backup to Dangerfield considering the sophomore’s ball-handling skills but Bent ended up as the main one running point against Dayton. Part of that is Auriemma’s desire to keep everyone else in their typical roles so only one player on the floor needs to be replaced, but Williams was happy to defer to Bent as well.
“She helped me a lot running the one (point guard) in the Dayton game,” Williams said. “I think she handled the ball more than I did. It was good to see, she does it in practice so she got her opportunity in the game.”
Even after four years in the program, Bent can go too hard for her own good at times. When she’s playing within herself, the senior has proven more than capable of being a good facilitator on the court. The problems start when she plays too fast, something the coaches are always trying to reign in.
“Molly tends to go too fast and when you go too fast, you end up doing too many things and you end up getting yourself in trouble,” Auriemma said. We’re constantly trying to slow her down. It seems to be working to a point.”
Over the last few seasons, UConn hasn’t been a very deep team. The Huskies rarely play more than six or seven players consistently and the bench gets even shorter in tight games against elite teams. But it’s certainly not Auriemma’s preferred way to play. Instead, he linked it to a larger issue around the country.
“Who in America loves to play six players? That might be more to the fact that there aren’t enough good players in America,” he said. “Because I think of the teams that won a national championship in the last few years: Notre Dame played six two years ago, I don’t know how many Baylor played last year. There aren’t a whole lot of teams playing eight players, nine players. It just doesn’t exist anymore.”
The coach believes that in order to have a deep rotation, schools need to consistently hit on their recruiting classes, year in and year out, something he admitted the Huskies haven’t done.
“It’s more of a function of two recruiting classes we had sucked,” he said on why the team plays with six players.
It’s not hard to figure out one of the classes he’s referring to. Megan Walker is the only player from the 2017 class to remain at UConn with Andra Espinoza-Hunter (Mississippi State), Lexi Gordon (Texas Tech) and Mikayla Coombs (Georgia) all transferring out. Evina Westbrook was also a member of that class, but she doesn’t factor in since she’s sitting out.
That one is easy, the second class that “sucked” is a bit more difficult to figure out. The 2016 class only features one elite player in Dangerfield but fellow four-year seniors Bent and Kyla Irwin both average over 10 minutes per game, so it’s not like that’s affecting this season’s rotation.
At the same time, the 2018 class is short on numbers but includes two elite players in Williams and Nelson-Ododa. It’s still early to judge the 2019 class, but both Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat seem to be hits as well. UConn hasn’t recruited well in terms of volume recently, but no other class on the roster stands out as a glaring miss.
Regardless, any questions of depth or a short bench are going to evaporate quickly once the 2020 class of Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards, Piath Gabriel, Mir McLean and Nika Muhl arrives.
“Next year with the recruiting class we have coming in, do you think we’ll have a short rotation? I don’t think so either,” he quipped.
Last week, Jeff Walz announced on a radio appearance that his Louisville Cardinals were set to play UConn in the 2020 Never Forget Tribute Classic at the Barclays Center. But on Tuesday, Auriemma claimed he hadn’t even heard about such a matchup until Walz’s comments were brought to his attention.
“Obviously, Jeff obviously doesn’t have a contract because I would have it,” Auriemma said. “And I don’t have a contract that says we’re playing at Barclays. So he might be playing somebody from Connecticut, but it’s not us.”
However, UConn already said there have been discussions for the game but no contract had been signed yet. While nothing’s official until that happens, it seems like there’s still a good chance this matchup takes place next season.