UConn women’s basketball has played one of the toughest schedules in the country so far, with all but one non-conference opponent falling in the RPI top 100. The one thing missing from their strong non-conference resume is a top-10 matchup against another elite program. That changes Thursday night when the Baylor Bears come to town.
Baylor will be the toughest test UConn has faced the season and is one of a series of three elite opponents (including Oregon and South Carolina) that the Huskies will see before March. The Bears come in as the ‘underdog’, currently ranked sixth in the nation. However, their resume boasts just one loss to South Carolina over Thanksgiving which came in the absence of star senior forward and preseason All-American Lauren Cox.
Cox has since returned to the court and while she may not be back in true mid-season form, the reigning national champions will be at full strength to face UConn.
“Obviously she’s got got some stuff that she’s gotta fight through because she hasn’t played. When you miss that much of the season, when you miss that many games, it’s not easy to jump right in there and pick up where you left off last year,” said Auriemma of Cox on Wednesday. “At the end of the season, I thought she was playing well, if not better, than anyone else. It’s going to take a little bit of time but there’s no denying how skilled she is and hoe aggressive she is. You watch them play with Lauren and you watch them play without Lauren and there’s no question whatsoever that they’re a national championship team with Lauren.”
Even without Cox, the Bears have looked strong this season. They’re averaging 88 points per game, while holding their opponents to an average of just 48. Both of those fall within the top three in the country, and Cox only played in four of their 12 games. Their talent and size will challenge UConn on both ends of the floor.
With this being the Huskies first big test of the season, we will learn a lot about UConn Thursday night. A few key things to keep an eye on include:
Can the offense flow against an elite defense?
To start the season, UConn’s offense struggled to find a rhythm. Those early concerns have since subsided and the Huskies offense has looked strong. UConn has scored over 80 points in every game since the start of December and ranks third in the nation for field goal percentage and sixth for points per play, per Her Hoop Stats.
Baylor will test the strength of the offense, as one of, if not the best defensive team in the country. In last year’s contest, the Huskies couldn’t figure out how to navigate the Bears’ defense and finished with under 30 percent shooting from the floor. This year’s team will need to do better to come away with the win.
Can UConn’s frontcourt excel against a tougher opponent?
Baylor’s frontcourt has no shortage of size or talent. In addition to Lauren Cox, Baylor has two elite post players in sophomores NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo. Smith and Egbo have both averaged over 13 points and 7 rebounds per game this season.
The Bears will likely present the toughest inside matchups that Olivia Nelson-Ododa will face this season. There’s no question that Nelson-Ododa is playing at a much higher level than she did her freshman year. Her ability to defend in the paint and alter Baylor’s shots will be tested against the best in the country. Her ability to contribute on offense with stronger post players guarding her under the basket will also be imperative to the Huskies’ success.
In addition, Megan Walker has been playing like an All-American all season long. If Walker can pull together another All-American caliber performance for UConn against Baylor, the Huskies are in good shape still two months out from March.
What can the Huskies get from their bench?
We know what to expect from UConn’s ‘core four’, but what about the bench? This will be the toughest opponent of Anna Makurat and Aubrey Griffin’s young college careers so far and it will be a crucial step in preparing them for March. With the fifth UConn starter, Kyla Irwin, averaging less than five points per game, the Huskies need to get help from their bench. Things are looking up if Makurat or Griffin impress with their minutes.
If UConn is going to remain undefeated on the season, they’ll need to put together their most complete performance of the season.
Keys to the game for the Huskies
Rebound, rebound, rebound: True to their identity, Baylor is once again one of the strongest rebounding teams in NCAA women’s basketball this season. UConn needs to crash the glass all game long, especially on the defensive end. Giving up too many second chance opportunities, especially easy put backs to the Bears’ talented front court, will make it nearly impossible for UConn to win this one.
Defending inside: Baylor scores under 14 percent of their points from three point range, which place them among the bottom 10 teams in the nation for points from beyond the arc. That means that the bulk of the Bears’ offense will come inside, especially in the paint, and the Huskies need to defend the interior well. That being said, Juicy Landrum hit a record setting 14 threes just a few weeks back, so the Huskies can’t afford to slack off on the arc either.
Finding opportunities to get out in transition: The intensity and size of Baylor’s defense is likely to cause some disruption to the Huskies offense. If UConn can turn Baylor over and create opportunities on the defensive end to get out in transition, it will lead to some easy buckets which otherwise may be hard to come by. A fast paced tempo will work to the Huskies’ advantage in this one.
How to watch:
Where: XL Center, Hartford, CT
When: 7 p.m. ET
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network, 97.9 ESPN Hartford