Despite a delayed start to the year, UConn women’s basketball kicked off its season with a furious stretch of five games in 11 days. With no exhibition games, these were our first opportunities to see a new-look Huskies team that featured seven new faces and four returners in different roles.
This is what we’ve learned about UConn during its first five games:
Paige Bueckers: Confirmed good
Daniel Connolly: Even with all the hype around her before the season, Paige Bueckers has been better than advertised. She leads the team in points (18.2), assists (29) and 3-point percentage (41.7 percent, min. 10 attempts) but the most impressive aspect of her game isn’t what she’s doing but how she does it.
Bueckers rarely — if ever — looks like a freshman and instead plays with a veteran’s confidence, feel for the game and swagger. She’s been one of UConn’s best and most consistent players wire to wire with at least 11 points and five assists in every game. At her best, Bueckers is the most impactful player on the floor, capable of making highlight-reel players. At her worst, she’s still pretty good.
Megan Gauer: Bueckers had high expectations with all the attention she received after arriving at UConn, but she’s more than lived up to the hype in the first five games of the season. From the Huskies’ opener, she’s consistently looked like one of the best players on the court and UConn’s offense is better when she gets more touches. Her ability to read the defense and create her own shots is impressive, especially for a freshman.
Bueckers appears to be a natural at running the Huskies’ offense as well and knows when to shoot or make the extra pass. Her 5.8 assists per game is not only a team high, but ranks 15th in the nation per Her Hoop Stats.
Other freshmen impressing, too
Connolly: Even without Bueckers, UConn’s freshmen have been impressive. Aaliyah Edwards is already a crucial piece of the Huskies’ rotation and her absence against Villanova was glaring, especially once Olivia Nelson-Ododa got into foul trouble. Edwards brings a physicality that UConn hasn’t had in a long, long time and provides a complementary style to the taller Nelson-Ododa.
Mir McLean, though her minutes have been limited, plays like the energizer bunny and hits the glass as well as anyone on the team. Meanwhile, Nika Muhl injured her foot before the opener, played in the first two games but then got shut down for the last three. In her limited introduction, she at least looked like she belonged on the court even if the production wasn’t there.
Overall, Bueckers, Edwards, McLean and Muhl should all play big roles for the Huskies this season and, looking forward, they’ll be one heck of a core for Geno Auriemma to build around over the next four years.
Megan: After just four games of action, Edwards looks like the piece UConn’s roster was missing last season. The Huskies need physicality and size when Nelson-Ododa isn’t on the court and Edwards brings just that. Her absence in Tuesday’s game against Villanova was a good reminder that for as athletic as Aubrey Griffin is, she’s not the best substitute at the five. Edwards provides an option off the bench that allows the Huskies to feed the post and defend the paint even without Nelson-Ododa on the floor.
In addition to Edwards, McLean has been impressive in her limited minutes. She’s phenomenal at crashing the offensive glass and has come down with the rebound on a quarter of the Huskies’ missed shots while on the floor.
Connolly: Neither of the Huskies juniors started the year well, but they both responded well and have been on an upward trajectory since. In UConn’s season opener, Nelson-Ododa missed nine shots. In the four games since, she’s missed seven. Nelson-Ododa is dominating smaller opponents the way she should and appears to have finally found the consistency she lacked last year. The biggest question mark for her is if she can play with some of the best bigs in the country. She’ll have a chance to prove herself against Baylor in a couple weeks.
As for Christyn Williams, she was mostly invisible against UMass Lowell on offense (she scored 10 points but most of those came in transition). However, she’s improved with each passing game and even flirted with a triple-double against Villanova (18 points, eight rebounds, seven assists). For as good as Bueckers is, Williams should be UConn’s go-to option in the backcourt and the junior finally seems to be coming into that role.
Megan: It took a couple of games for Williams and Nelson-Ododa to hit their strides, but UConn’s two juniors have looked great in the the past few games. Since struggling in the season opener, Nelson-Ododa has been nearly automatic from the floor. Her field goal percentage is over 81 percent for the past four games while averaging 18.8 points per game en route to two double-doubles in the same span. Perhaps even more impressive, Nelson-Ododa has added that production in under 24 minutes per game. However, the Huskies will benefit if she can stay out of foul trouble and give them more minutes against tougher opponents.
Aside from the opener, Williams has been good night in and night out — UConn needs her to be great. Luckily, Williams has progressed in that direction each game and really shined against Villanova on Tuesday. Despite her three-point shots not falling, she attacked the basket and did a little bit of everything for the Huskies. Williams put on exactly the type of performance UConn will need from her in big games.
Connolly: Griffin and Anna Makurat haven’t found their footing in their second season in Storrs yet. Makurat is still trying to get her 3-point shot to fall (7-22 from three) and is only averaging 6.6 points per game. She’s at least been a key facilitator with 22 assists (second-most behind Bueckers) and has been solid on the defensive boards, but Makurat is UConn’s best shooter and will need to step up with better competition on the way.
Griffin is more of an enigma. She’s averaging the sixth-most minutes on the team but hasn’t made much of an impact. Griffin looks tentative and doesn’t just go out and make plays like she did as a freshman. She’s only surpassed the three rebound mark in one game and hasn’t used her athleticism much. Even when Griffin is on, she doesn’t look significantly better than she did last year. If she doesn’t start to turn it around, McLean could start to eat into her minutes.
Megan: So far, it feels like Griffin and Makurat haven’t played at the level they were at towards the end of last season. Makurat in particular seems to be struggling on the offensive end. She has done a nice job distributing the ball but hasn’t created much for herself on offense and can’t find the basket on her outside shots. Makurat was a streaky shooter last year from deep, so the threes should come eventually. But she’s taken nearly three-quarters of her attempts from deep so when those aren’t falling, I’d like to see her use her skills in the lane more.
Defense needs work
Connolly: Geno still isn’t sold on his defense and it wasn’t hard to see why against Villanova. UConn struggled to get a stop on the defensive end and traded baskets for much of the first half. The Huskies’ only elite defensive player is Nelson-Ododa and opposing teams seem to be avoiding her, which limits her impact (she has just 11 blocks). Aside from that, UConn’s on-ball defense hasn’t been great something Seton Hall’s Lauren Park-Lane exposed. The Huskies still have plenty of room to improve, but it’s hard to imagine them eventually transforming into a lockdown defensive team, especially against better competition.
Megan: The Huskies haven’t faced a team that can hurt them from all parts of the floor yet but they’ve struggled to contain some of the better players they’ve faced in the Big East. At Seton Hall, Park-Lane scored 29 points against UConn. Against Villanova, UConn’s defense faced another test in Maddy Siegrist. She scored 13 points in the first half but the Huskies refocused their defense at halftime and held her to just two points in the second half. While we’ve seen good spurts of defense from this team, teams with multiple elite level players on the floor might give the Huskies more than they can handle.
Two big tests on the way
Connolly: UConn didn’t have any trouble with its first five opponents — highlighted by the fact that the Huskies only trailed against Villanova and even then, they were only behind for 3:14. Better competition is on the way, though. UConn will return from a short Christmas break against No. 18 DePaul followed by a trip to No. 7 Baylor. After all we’ve learned about the Huskies through five games, we’ll get a chance to see what they’re really made of over the next two games.
Megan: As long as the Huskies control the tempo against DePaul, I don’t foresee the Blue Demons being much of a challenge. DePaul plays a small lineup which means Nelson-Ododa should dominate inside. Baylor will be a great test for UConn, however. The Bears have size inside, experienced guards and can challenge the Huskies’ on both ends of the floor.