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UConn women’s basketball 2020 offseason recap

Looking back on the Huskies’ longest offseason in recent memory.

Courtesy of UConn Athletics

In less than three weeks, UConn women’s basketball will officially begin its 2020-21 campaign against Quinnipiac at Mohegan Sun, which will put an end to one of the longest offseasons in program history — both literally and figuratively.

UConn’s season ended earlier than expected and will begin later than usual. During the time in between, a global pandemic shut down the United States, social justice protests spread throughout the country, and plenty of other noteworthy events occurred, making the last six months sometimes feel like six years.

So in order to properly look back on the Huskies’ offseason, we need to go all the way back to March — when the coronavirus ended UConn’s 2019-20 season.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

When UConn won its seventh and final AAC Tournament on March 9, life was normal. 5,340 fans watched as the Huskies celebrated on the court at Mohegan Sun Arena, a cathartic victory in a long, difficult season. It seems almost impossible to believe that just three days later, COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. The next day, Geno Auriemma spoke with the media and, like the rest of us, tried to make sense of what was next for him and the program.

With the season unexpectedly over, we recapped an odd year for the Huskies, reviewed the backcourt and frontcourt, and looked ahead to the 2020-21 season.

Shortly after, Megan Walker made the surprising decision to declare early for the WNBA Draft, leaving behind a legacy as a great player at UConn, but not a UConn great. Regardless, Walker still earned AP and WBCA All-American honors, securing her place in the Huskies of Honor.

Auriemma then began a short-lived Instagram Live series, beginning with Rebecca Lobo, where he discussed Megan Walker’s departure, how he’s handling isolation, fought a humorous battle with technology, and hit on a few more team-related notes.

In the WNBA, the New York Liberty traded Tina Charles to the Washington Mystics. Soon after, two more Huskies joined the WNBA ranks: Megan Walker got her wish when the Liberty picked her ninth overall while Crystal Dangerfield fell all the way to the 16th pick, where Napheesa Collier’s Minnesota Lynx scooped her up. After the draft, we evaluated how both players fit in with their new teams.

In May, Jasmine Lister officially resigned from her position as assistant coach after going on “personal leave” in the middle of the season. A few weeks later, UConn announced Jamelle Elliot, who filled in for Lister through the end of last year, would stay on staff as a permanent assistant.

Because UConn couldn’t hold in-person graduation because of the pandemic, it instead had one large virtual commencement. The featured speaker? Geno Auriemma, who explained how COVID-19 will be the graduating class’ “defining moment.

On the scheduling front, the Basketball Hall of Fame announced its Women’s Challenge at Mohegan Sun featuring the Huskies along with Quinnipiac, Maine, and Mississippi State. Soon thereafter, UConn postponed their series with Texas, Cal and, Oklahoma. The Hall of Fame set a date for the Tennessee game as well. Providence athletic director Bob Driscoll also let it slip that Mohegan Sun would host the Big East women’s basketball tournament — news that the conference later made official.

In June, protests swept across the nation after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. UConn’s players released a unified statement as a team and both current and former Huskies spoke out individually on social media.

Speaking of sparking change, Batouly Camara was one of seven people honored with the 2020 Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award during the ESPYs, given to high school or college-aged students that use the power of sports to better their communities.

Meanwhile, Renee Montgomery opted out of the WNBA season — one of four former UConn stars to do so — with the goal of becoming a “catalyst” for social change.

Maya Moore stepped away from the game two years ago to fight for justice — specifically to try to secure the release of Jonathan Irons, a family friend who was wrongfully convicted on charges of assault and burglary. In July, her work paid off as Irons was officially released from prison. Two months later, Moore and Irons announced their marriage.

Back to basketball, UConn officially joined the Big East on July 1. We looked back at the long, winding road it took for the Huskies to return to their rightful conference home and broke down what the women’s basketball competition will look like.

That same day, Auriemma met with the media for the first time since his end of the season conference call, named juniors Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Evina Westbrook, and Christyn Williams the de-facto captains, and announced the team would return to campus July 26.

Some other stories we wrote: The Huskies unveiled the incoming freshmen class’s jersey numbers, which will look oddly familiar. We then looked back at notable shoe deals throughout UConn players and saw Azura Stevens open up a food trailer with her father.

In mid-July, the WNBA prepared to begin its season in a bubble down in Bradenton, Florida. We previewed the former UConn players in the Eastern and Western Conference, filled a notebook and covered Breanna Stewart’s big return from her Achilles injury — along with the strong starts by the rest of the Huskies in the league.

Throughout the season, former UConn players in the WNBA were at the forefront of social justice movements. On the court, Diana Taurasi set (another) league record with 28 threes in five games while Crystal Dangerfield became the first non-first round pick to win the Rookie of the Year Award. With Dangerfield’s surprise emergence, we ranked which Huskies in the WNBA would be best to build a franchise around.

Number one on that list was Breanna Stewart, who claimed her second WNBA title with the Seattle Storm alongside Sue Bird. With another trophy on their respective resumes, each player further solidified themselves as one of the greatest to ever play the sport. Unsurprisingly, Stewart is now the highest-rated WNBA player in NBA 2k21.

WNBA Championship Portraits Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

We broke down the state of UConn’s roster which, shortly thereafter, added Autumn Chassion as a walk-on as part of her incredible journey to Storrs.

The Huskies returned to campus in late-July, healthy and COVID-free. Once everyone settled in, Auriemma and all 11 players spoke with the media. The coach provided updates on the team and expanded on the Huskies’ new leadership group, why this year’s returners are more prepared to carry the load compared to last season, and how the program’s past is helping them recruit the present.

We also wrote about individual players such as Westbrook finally feeling like a basketball player at UConn, Williams putting her rocky sophomore season behind her, Makurat preparing herself for a breakout season, Nika Muhl living out a life-long dream, and Chassion enjoying her early days with the team.

On the recruiting front, UConn picked up its third 2021 commit: Caroline Ducharme, a guard out of Massachusetts. Though she was only rated as ESPN’s No. 41 player in the class at the time of her decision in April, she’s since shot up No. 5 and is the Huskies’ top recruit in the class.

UConn also landed in the top four along with Louisville, Maryland, and UCLA for Azzi Fudd, the top 2021 prospect. She seemed to indicate that she wanted to commit before early signing day on Nov. 11, though nothing is official. We also examined some of the Huskies’ targets in the class of 2022.

One of the major storylines entering this season will be how UConn replaces Crystal Dangerfield at point guard. Based on past comments by Auriemma, the Huskies might not use just one player to run the offense but could instead use a committee approach.

At the start of October, Auriemma and the captains met with the media again. The coach noted his team’s slow progress in practice with so many newcomers but also praised the same group for adding a new, competitive edge to the squad. Westbrook also emerged as UConn’s go-to leader off the court.

UConn’s schedule slowly came together in October and November. Auriemma revealed that the Big East will play a 20-game conference slate despite the pandemic which will start in December instead of January.

Though all UConn’s non-conference games were expected to stay intact, Notre Dame postponed its yearly meeting with the Huskies. When UConn announced its non-conference opponents (without dates), Louisville had replaced the Fighting Irish. Eventually, the Huskies solidified dates for each of those games and also got a schedule from the Big East for its first four games back in the conference, starting on Dec. 6 against Seton Hall.

UConn announced it will play all its home games at Gampel Pavilion this season since there’s no reason to pay rent at the XL Center if fans can’t attend. Unfortunately, state health officially will only allow guests of players and coaches into games at Gampel due to COVID, though that decision can be re-evaluated if numbers improve.

With UConn’s return to the Big East combined with an infusion of young talent, the Huskies are entering a new era in program history. They’ll have a fresh new look to go with that as UConn unveiled sharp new home, away, and gray uniforms.

Practice officially began for Auriemma’s squad on Oct. 14. As expected, freshman Paige Bueckers was an early standout — both for her basketball talents but also for the way she carries herself.

She isn’t the only freshman earning high praise, however. Despite not yet playing a single game for the Huskies, Aaliyah Edwards is already drawing comparisons to Napheesa Collier. Meanwhile, Auriemma also took some time to reflect on the dawn of a new season and pulled back the curtain on what makes him great.

After that, we recapped everything we learned about the 2020-21 Huskies to that point.

Around the same time, the AP reported that the US Labor Department identified wage discrepancies in UConn’s athletic department — which included four members of Auriemma’s 2014 national championship staff.

The Big East held its annual media day virtually this year and, as expected, UConn’s return took center stage. The Huskies were picked to win the conference in the preseason coaches’ poll while Williams was tabbed Preseason Player of the Year and Bueckers was picked as Preseason Rookie of the Year.

The pandemic, of course, was also a major storyline. Commissioner Val Ackerman said the conference will resume games on Dec. 30 after the holiday break, but didn’t commit to a schedule or format. As of now, all options are in play — though coaches don’t want a long-term bubble like the WNBA.

The Big East coaches also unanimously agreed that UConn may be the missing piece that could boost the conference — which is an already-strong mid-major — into one of the best in the nation.

Auriemma used the event to take stock of his roster after a couple weeks of practice and went on a long diatribe about how divided the country is and why he’s sick of performative acts ahead of Election Day.

Lastly, we checked in on former UConn players around the country.

The season is only a few weeks away, so here are some important links to follow Geno and the Huskies all season long:

You can also follow The UConn Blog on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Make sure to follow our staff on Twitter as well: @DanielVConnolly (Writer, editor), @megangauer (Writer, stats, WBB expert), and @Ian_Bethune (Photos, videos).