UConn women’s basketball’s frontcourt turned over significantly this offseason. Gone are three seniors who saw marginal playing time and in come three freshmen who should all have some type of role. The Huskies return just two frontcourt players, but those returning players just so happen to be the two bigs in line for the most important minutes.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa — Junior
Starting center Olivia Nelson-Ododa is eyeing a breakout campaign after a solid, albeit inconsistent sophomore season. At 6-foot-5, she was the only player in the rotation with height last year, which meant she played “an awful lot of minutes”, as Auriemma put it.
“I don’t know that all those minutes were productive,” he added.
Nelson-Ododa transformed her attitude and the way she practiced after the Oregon game and the results showed, as she closed the season with double-figures in seven of her final 10 games and at least seven rebounds in nine of 10.
This will be the second-straight year that UConn relies heavily on Nelson-Ododa. For the Huskies to be true national championship contenders, she needs to take the next step in her game as a junior. But this year, it seems like Nelson-Ododa will be better prepared to handle the task compared to last season.
“I mean, that’s what’s supposed to happen,” Auriemma said. “She had a better sophomore year than she had freshman year, and I would expect her to have a better junior than a sophomore year. That’s the expectation level that she has and that’s what I have.”
Nelson-Ododa will once again be a shot-blocking presence (she finished last year with 100 blocks, eighth-most in program history) and could very well take a run at the school’s single-season blocks record of 147, set by Kiah Stokes in 2014-15.
Aubrey Griffin — Sophomore
Few players can throw a wrench into an opponent’s gameplan quite like Griffin. Her athleticism is second-to-none, which allows her to compete for any rebound and get to the rim with ease. To gauge Griffin’s impact on the defensive end, just ask Tennessee how much damage she can do on that end of the floor.
Despite this athleticism translating to some big performances, such as her 25-point, 12-rebound game against Seton Hall or her 22-point, 16-rebound effort in the AAC Tournament vs. Temple, everything in between showed that Griffin still has a long way to go to reach that level consistently. This comes as no surprise, however, as she is only entering her second season with the program.
The next step in Griffin’s game will come from developing her offensive game and being a more composed and consistent presence for the Huskies. Auriemma said back in July that the sophomore is “a 100 times better” this year and if that proves to be true, she could very easily be UConn’s most impactful player this season.
Aaliyah Edwards — Freshman
Though Paige Bueckers may be getting the most hype out of UConn’s freshmen class, Edwards appears to be quietly putting together a strong preseason. After being likened to Napheesa Collier by Christyn Williams, Edwards earned high praise from Auriemma as well last week.
“Aaliyah is one of the most physical players that we’ve had here in a while,” he said. “Her physical-ness, and her intensity level, and how hard she competes.”
Jamelle Elliot, who often works with the team’s bigs, expanded on what Edwards brings to the team.
“I think her number one strength is her physicality. She’s not afraid to bang in the low post, she’s not afraid to set a hard screen, she’s not afraid to go to the boards and mix it up inside.”
Elliot added, “She brings a physical-ness that I think is needed on both ends of the floor, whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s clamp defense in the post, as well as on the offensive end, finding your space and being able to carve out position on the inside to create ways for you to score while also getting yourself in a position to set good screens to get our shooters open shots.”
Edwards projects to be Nelson-Ododa’s top backup and one of the first players off the bench for the Huskies.
Piath Gabriel — Freshman
Gabriel is one of the most intriguing players in UConn’s freshmen class. Unlike the other four, she wasn’t a highly sought prospect but still showed the Huskies’ coaching staff enough to earn a scholarship.
Essentially, Gabriel is a high-potential developmental recruit. Listed at 6-foot-5 with a strong frame, her game is still raw. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be buried on the end of the bench her entire freshman season.
“She’s [6-foot-5] and she’s unlike anybody else we have on our roster so that makes her extremely unique,” Elliot said. “Right now, I think every day we just find opportunities to get her in individual situations to continue to see that growth in her presence inside, her finishing consistently around a basket.”
There are a few things working in Gabriel’s favor, though. First is the Huskies’ relative lack of height in the frontcourt with Nelson-Ododa and Gabriel as the only two true back-to-the-basket post players. Second is Gabriel’s attitude.
“She has a great way about her. She wants to be taught, she’s eager to learn every day,” Elliot said. “Does she have a long way to go just like all of our other players? Absolutely. But the fun part of it is seeing her eyes every day, eager when she comes into practice, eager to get better, and anticipating ways that she can get better every day so when it is time for her to have an opportunity to impact us when it’s time to play, she’s going to be as ready as possible.”
Gabriel’s minutes will largely depend on how she develops as well as how she matches up with opposing teams. Though it’s hard to see her taking on a substantial role, she seems to be in line for at least more than garbage time minutes.
Mir McLean — Freshman
It’s hard not to compare McLean to Griffin. Both are super-athletic, versatile wings. Both were similarly ranked coming out of high school (ESPN had Griffin No. 21 in her class and McLean No. 25). Auriemma’s even said similar things about each of them as freshmen.
“Mir slides in there and surprises you every once in a while,” he said last week.
“She surprises herself sometimes, which is kind of scary,” he said of Griffin prior to First Night in 2019.
The biggest difference between McLean and Griffin as a freshman is opportunity. Where Griffin played the sixth-most minutes on the team last year, it’s hard to imagine McLean — in a best-case scenario — being any higher than eighth in the rotation behind the five upperclassmen as well as Bueckers and Edwards.
But if McLean can provide a spark off the bench for the Huskies — similar to what Griffin did last year — that’ll be a good foundation for the freshman to build from.
CLICK HERE for a breakdown of the team’s guards for the upcoming 2020-21 season.