In 1988, UConn women’s basketball added seven freshmen to the roster — a group that included Debbie (Baer) Fiske, Meghan (Pattyson) Culmo, and Wendy Davis — and went on to win the program’s first Big East regular season and tournament championships.
32 years later, the Huskies are favorites to win the Big East in their first year back while again integrating seven players that have never suited up for the team before — newly-eligible Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook and freshmen Paige Bueckers, Autumn Chassion, Aaliyah Edwards, Piath Gabriel, Mir McLean, and Nika Muhl.
Geno Auriemma noted similarities between the two during Big East media day on Thursday and believes they’re the two youngest teams he’s ever had at UConn. After that, the coach took stock of where the roster stands after two weeks of official practice in the books:
If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that the restrictions and rules imposed on the team have brought the players together. When they arrived on-campus, they could only practice and interact with the other members of their apartment, or “pod”. Even after the team transitioned to full practices, the players were still limited in terms of who they could interact with outside the gym.
As a result, the team has become a close-knit unit.
“Off the court, the closeness of this team is quite remarkable given how many young players we got,” Auriemma said. “But there’s a tremendous chemistry among our team, off the court. In the time that they spend doing the things that really close teams do and how they look after each other, how they care for each other. Those things are not easy to do and they’ve hit a home run with that. Grand slam with that.”
But even with that chemistry — and the fact the team seems to be spending more time in the gym than usual since there isn’t much else to do, according to Auriemma — it hasn’t helped bridge the gap between the returning players and the newcomers on the court. At least not yet.
“The frustrating thing for me right now, and for them, is that stuff’s not carrying over on court,” he said. “It’s really a peaks and valleys thing. When we’ve got it going in practice, we look really, really good. Like we could really do some great things this year. When it goes the other way, we look god awful. Awful. So we’re trying to find that middle ground where when we’re good, we’re great and when we’re not so good, we’re still pretty good.”
From the moment Megan Walker declared early for the WNBA Draft, the 2020-21 Huskies became Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams’ team. With no seniors on the roster, the two juniors are by the far the most experience players. Between two of them, Nelson-Ododa and Williams have 104 career starts at UConn. The nine other players have 14 starts total — all of which belong to Anna Makurat.
“They’re in their third year playing for us and they have the experience of playing in a lot of big games and winning a lot of big games and playing in the Final Four,” Auriemma said of the two juniors. “So we’re really going to rely on them heavily for a lot of things, on and off the court. And that’s always the key to a team’s success: What kind of leadership you’re getting from your upperclassmen.”
Westbrook has 34 career starts under her belt, though all of those came at Tennessee, not UConn. Her last game action was also back on March 23, 2019 — 588 days and two knee surgeries ago.
Auriemma admitted in early October that Westbrook may take some time to get back into basketball shape after so much time away. However, the coach didn’t exactly sound optimistic about the redshirt junior on Thursday.
“We’re hopeful that Evina can shake off some of the rust of not playing a lot during the last year, year and a half and then coming off surgery,” he said.
The Huskies have been working out on the court in some degree since early August and began full practice for two weeks now. A year and a half is a long time to go without playing competitive basketball — especially when the surgeries are taken into account — but it seems noteworthy that Westbrook still seems to be working her way back.
Based on their career progressions to this point, Nelson-Ododa and Williams are safe bets to have strong seasons. Historically, players with a similar talent level as those two put it all together by their junior year — if not sooner. Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams and Megan Walker, to name a few recent examples, were role players prior to becoming juniors.
Westbrook is the wildcard. If she can be the caliber of player that she was at Tennessee — where she averaged 14.9 points and 5.3 assists per game — the Huskies could be one of the better teams in the nation offensively. If not, they might to piece it together as they go.
“Those three, I think, are going to be a big focal point for our team,” Auriemma said. “How well they play this season will determine what kind of season we have.”
Auriemma didn’t have a whole lot to say about either of the second-year players, Aubrey Griffin and Makurat. At least, nothing he hasn’t said before.
“Our two sophomores with Aubrey and Anna coming off freshman year where they each had their own moments where they looked like they were going to be really, really good players and now they’re anxious to be more consistent, to be more productive. And they can be. They can be and they both improved from last season,” he said.
Previously, Auriemma said Makurat looked like “a completely different person and a completely different player,” highlighting her improved fitness in addition to her play. As for Griffin, he thinks she’s “100 times better than she was last year.”
After the team returned to campus in July and began small-group workouts, Auriemma predicted the freshmen would see a lot of action — not because the Huskies need them to play a lot (which they do), but because “they’re really good.” On Thursday, he hinted at which players he thinks are likely to contribute the most.
“Everybody knows about Paige. Everybody knows because that’s what comes with being so highly recruited and that’s all the attention and that’s all well and good,” he said. “Paige handles it great. She’s a great teammate, she’s easy to coach, she’s easy to be around with her teammates.”
Auriemma doesn’t expect Bueckers to “single-handedly gonna come in here and win us a national championship,” — but the qualifier for that quote is “singe-handedly”.
“I am going to be saying, ‘You know what, we wouldn’t have won the national championship without her,’” he said about Bueckers after UConn’s win over Notre Dame last season. “That is what I am going to say. By herself she can’t win anything. But with the people I think we are going to surround her with, I think we can do great things.”
Along with Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl have both shined, which isn’t too surprising. Edwards has 14 caps with the senior Canadian National Team and is already drawing comparisons to Napheesa Collier. Muhl, meanwhile, was regarded as one of the best European prospects and at age 19 is a year older than a typical freshman.
“By the looks of it right now – if you come to some of our practices – there are times when Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl, those guys, sometimes look like they’ve been playing college basketball for a while because they fit right in, they slide right in. So Paige, Nika Aaliyah, they mix really really well with our returning players,” he said.
As for the other three, McLean flashes “once in a while”, which sounds similar to Aubrey Griffin’s preseason last year. The biggest difference between those two players is opportunity, though. Whereas Griffin was the first or second option off the bench for UConn last season, McLean projects to be no higher than the fourth or fifth reserve.
Auriemma said Gabriel is behind McLean while Chassion is behind Gabriel. The fact that those two players are trailing everyone else is to be expected since Gabriel is a raw, project big while Chassion is a walk-on. However...
“Everybody’s gotten better. Everybody’s gotten better,” he said. “Everybody’s been able to catch up a little bit more each and every day, each and every week that we’ve practiced.”