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UConn WBB Weekly: What we’ve learned about the 2020-21 Huskies so far

The Huskies are a little over a month out from the start of the season. What do we know about this year’s team?

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Courtesy of UConn Athletics

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What we know about the Huskies so far

There are 37 days until UConn women’s basketball tips off its new season on Nov. 28 against Quinnipiac at Mohegan Sun. The Huskies held their first official practice last Wednesday and will begin their ramp up to get ready for the new season.

To this point, there have been three media availabilities since the team returned to campus in late July. With practices closed and no exhibitions due to the pandemic, everything we learn about UConn either comes from head coach Geno Auriemma or the players, which means the availabilities are the only chance to get a peek behind the curtain.

Here’s what we’ve learned about the 2020-21 Huskies so far:

The returners

UConn faced significant roster turnover this season, losing six players — five to graduation and one to an early departure to the WNBA. That means the Huskies return just four players that saw game action, none of whom are seniors: Juniors Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams along with sophomores Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat.

Even with a top-ranked freshman class, these four players form the backbone of the roster — a core four, if you will. Though the size of each player’s role last season varied, each one will need to make a sizable improvement this year. However, Auriemma didn’t seem worried about it back in August.

“When you go from freshman, sophomore year where you’re playing but you’re not a focal point of the team but you know you’re important, to now all of a sudden, everyone’s looking at you like ‘Liv, Christyn, Evina, Anna, Aubrey: If you guys aren’t really, really good this year, we’re going to stink.’ So there’s this sense of ‘It’s my time.’ And they’re embracing it. I love it,” he said.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa

Auriemma isn’t exactly known as a coach who dishes out compliments left and right. Which makes his recent praise of Nelson-Ododa notable.

“I would say Liv has been really, really top-notch since we’ve been back. She’s been great,” he said. “As a player, she’s been different, as a leader she’s been different. We are getting what we need.”

Specifically, Auriemma highlighted Nelson-Ododa’s “completely different mindset” and her improved passing as two of the biggest differences in the junior center’s game compared to last season.

“Liv has become a way better passer — and she was already a good passer,” he said.

Courtesy of UConn Athletics

Christyn Williams

If you could bet on such a thing, Williams would be the odds-on favorite to be UConn’s leading scorer this season. The junior admitted she lost her confidence last year and played “the worst season of basketball...in my life” but took advantage of quarantine to reset, get in better shape and come in prepared to elevate her game this season.

“Christyn just looks like she’s a great athlete now instead of just a high school kid,” Auriemma said. “She looks like a college player now and there’s an intensity level about her now that’s more consistent. And confidence, again, her confidence is really sky-high.”

Williams is also one of the three team captains alongside Nelson-Ododa and Evina Westbrook.

Aubrey Griffin

Living with two other Division I basketball players has its perks. With local gyms closed due to the pandemic, Griffin took to playing against her brothers — Alan, a junior at Syracuse and AJ, a 2021 forward committed to Duke — to stay in shape.

“It helps a lot. They make me tougher because they don’t care,” she said in August. “They go as hard as if they were playing against a guy. They still dunk on me and stuff. They don’t take it easy.”

Those workouts paid off. Even after just three days into workouts this summer, Auriemma had already seen significant improvement from the rising sophomore.

“Aubrey’s like a 100 times better than she was last year,” he said. “Aubrey went home and she told me that her and her brother worked out a lot together. Her brother’s a pretty decent player, he’s going to Duke. I’m sure they have some pretty great workouts and you can tell. She just looks more mature and conducts herself in a way like ‘I’ve been here.’”

Anna Makurat

Though her road back to Storrs from Poland was more difficult than expected due to COVID-19, Makurat returned to campus having undergone a physical transformation after working with a nutritionist over the offseason.

“She looks like a completely different person and a completely different player,” he said. “Her conditioning level is just a complete 180 from last year. And she spent a couple weeks with the national team over there in Poland. You can tell. She’s so confident and her quickness, everything.”

Now that she’s in better shape, Makurat said she can put all her attention onto the basketball court.

“I think I’m definitely more comfortable,” she said. “It’s an extra energy and strength I gain. It’s definitely easier to focus on all the little things that are important in basketball instead of focusing on being in bad shape.”

Courtesy of UConn Athletics

Newcomers

The Huskies will add six freshmen along with now-eligible Tennessee transfer to the mix this season. Though they’re understandably behind the returning players on the court in practice, Auriemma said the group’s competitiveness has elevated the entire team.

“Our incoming players are extremely competitive. Extremely competitive,” he said. “That in and of itself is going to add a lot to this team. They don’t back down to anybody, our freshmen. Now, they all have varying levels of competitiveness — I’m throwing Evina into that mix. Those seven are all competitive as hell. Among those seven, there may be different levels of competitiveness but that competitive spirit is really, really high among those new kids. That’s something that I’m excited about building on.”

As for the freshmen specifically, Auriemma predicts they’ll have a big role this season.

“We have freshmen that are willing to learn and they’re really good players and I think the freshmen are going to contribute immensely to what we’re doing,” he said. “Not just because they have to but because they’re really good.”

Evina Westbrook

There’s no bigger question mark on this year’s team than Evina Westbrook. Though she’s established herself as UConn’s go-to leader off the court, how much she can contribute on it remains to be seen. After knee surgery on New Years’ Eve 2019, Westbrook is still working her way back, though she seems to be nearing 100 percent.

“Some days I don’t even think about my knee, my knee’s not even a factor to me,” she said. “I just need to make sure even with my good days, I take them. I know I’m going to have bad days as well so really just listening to my body is a big thing for me.”

Auriemma admitted Westbrook was probably dealt the toughest hand of any of the newcomers, but he’s been pleased with her progress.

“The challenge for Evina has been great,” he said. “There’s a lot on her plate...but I can see, again, her drive, her edge, her competitiveness, and her ability to make plays. The conditioning part, it’s always going to take some time. The COVID thing has really played a big part in where their conditioning is. It can’t be as great as we would want it to be but at the same time, I’m really happy with where E is right now.”

Paige Bueckers

Few freshmen have come to UConn with as much anticipation as Paige Bueckers. She’s one of the top prospects in recent memory and FiveThirtyEight estimated that she could be the highest-paid college athlete if allowed to profit off name, likeness and image.

Though she initially threw fuel on that fire when she first arrived on campus — “It’s just never a plan for me to lose,” she said. “I’m not going to go out and say I only want to win one or two (national titles), I want to win four. Everybody should want to win four.” — Bueckers has mostly blended into the background as just another freshman at UConn.

“She hasn’t been walking around or acting like [she’s] any different than anybody else. ‘I’m just a freshman coming into a big-time program trying to find my way,’” Auriemma said of Bueckers.

The talent level is certainly there, though. But what makes Bueckers special is that she knows how to toe the line between being cocky and being confident.

“She knows she’s good,” Auriemma said.” That’s part of being good. She knows she’s good and she knows there’s things she can do that are kind of unique. So she has fun with it.”

Courtesy of UConn Athletics

Aaliyah Edwards

Without media access to practice or exhibition games, it’s tough to get a sense of where any of the freshmen are at this point in their collegiate careers. But it’s safe to say that if they’re already drawing comparisons to some of the greatest players in program history, they must be doing something right.

“She’s very versatile. She’s kinda like Phee (Napheesa Collier),” Christyn Williams said. “She can play on the outside as well but on the inside is where she flourishes more. She’s very tough. She’s a competitor so she competes. On the defensive end, she’s very mature for her end. It’s like she’s done this before.”

We took a closer look at the Collier comparison — which included Auriemma’s thoughts — in our profile of Edwards here.

At 6-foot-3, she’ll certainly play in the post and projects to be the top backup to Nelson-Ododa. But her biggest strength — similar to Griffin last season — won’t be in any specific facet of the game. Instead, she could be using her athleticism and size to create chaos on both ends of the floor.

“For me, my strength is really just being a competitor,” she said. “I have that competitive mindset that I feel like cannot only help me as an individual player but also as a team player. Just being relentless, doing the little things, rebounding, going after those loose balls. Also being a playmaker but when I do get the chance, get myself a little and-one or a little pull-up jump shot.”

Courtesy of UConn Athletics

Piath Gabriel

Coming in, the expectation was that Gabriel would be a project big that needed some time to develop. So far, that seems to be the case for the 6-foot-5 freshman.

“Piath is great,” Williams said. “She has a lot to work on but once she can have her footwork and stuff down, you know, the regular freshman stuff, she’ll be really good.”

Mir McLean

McLean hasn’t been mentioned much to this point, but Williams did liken the freshman to Griffin.

“She’s very athletic like Aubrey. Now we have two Aubreys,” Williams said.

Off the court, McLean loves learning languages. She’s taking an Arabic course this semester and also enlisted Makurat and Muhl to teach her Polish and Croatian, respectively.

“Really excited about that, actually. I’m really excited to get into the whole language stuff,” she said. “Anna and Nika are trying to teach me some Croatian and Polish so I’m really excited about that. Then we’ve got Arabic going on for a class and I can’t wait for that to start too.”

Nika Muhl

There hasn’t been many questions about the freshman from Croatia, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t come up. A few times, Muhl’s passing abilities have been highlighted without prompt.

“Paige and Nika are excellent passers. Like, excellent passers,” Auriemma said.

“Nika’s passes are crazy good,” corroborated Williams.

Maybe that’s reading too much into two quotes but at the very least, Muhl seems to be off to a strong start. If she can keep it up, Auriemma will find her minutes even with a loaded backcourt.

Courtesy of UConn Athletics

Autumn Chassion

The latest addition to the roster as a walk-on, Chassion isn’t expected to see significant action this season but she hopes to earn her way into the rotation someday. If that does happen, it’ll likely be because of her three-point shooting.

“Autumn can shoot,” Williams said. “She can shoot lights-out.”

Courtesy of UConn Athletics

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History Corner

A throwback to the pre-WNBA days of women’s professional basketball featuring Jen Rizzotti and Hartford’s former team, the New England Blizzard.