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Is USF really UConn women’s basketball’s biggest “rival” in the AAC?

Also, Auriemma talks about the possibility of a non-conference series with USF; Update on one of the Huskies’ 2021 targets

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn women’s basketball is a team without parallel in the AAC. The Huskies are 130-0 all-time against their conference mates, claiming every single regular season and tournament title. UConn has only come close to losing once, a three-point victory over Tulane back in 2017.

But up until last year, USF acted as the closest thing to a foil for the Huskies. Jose Fernandez’s Bulls are a perennial top 25 team, frequently make the NCAA Tournament and provide the biggest challenge to UConn’s dominance in the AAC. That’s the narrative, at least. However, it holds up statistically as well.

UConn and USF have played 17 times in the AAC — three more than the next closest team. The Bulls also reached the conference tournament championship game every year from 2015-18. In terms of point differential, the Huskies have beaten USF by an average of 29.94 points per game, the narrowest margin of any team in the AAC. The Bulls are the only team where that mark is under 30 points, with the next closest team being the UCF Knights at 33.25 points per game.

Overall, UConn has out-scored AAC teams by 4,460 points, an average margin of victory of 34.3 points per game.

While USF isn’t responsible for either of UConn’s two single-digit AAC wins, the Bulls have kept seven games within 20 points. That’s as many as the rest of the conference has combined.

Though the Huskies have blitzed USF a few times — a 61-point win in Jan. 2017 and a 56-point win later that year, to name two examples — the Bulls have kept it respectable far more than anyone else in the conference. While they may not always be the most talented squad, USF is well-coached and typically makes life difficult for UConn.

“Year in and year out, they’re always one of the more difficult games to play because they’re always so regimented,” Auriemma said. “They just try to wear you down. It’s like every play has 15 options to it, you just have to chase them around, chase them around. It’s a real challenge, especially when they have as many shooters as they have at this point in time.”

Last season, injuries derailed the Bulls’ final run with their core. Because of that, USF is a young team this year with five underclassmen averaging over 20 minutes per game. The Bulls are just 15-9 with a 7-3 mark in the AAC, though Auriemma has seen marked improvement from the beginning of the season to now.

“They’re certainly harder to prepare for than they were two years ago when you knew their offense was going to one spot, you knew who was going to take most of their shots, you knew what it was geared to and now, this year, they’ve spread it around a lot,” Auriemma said. “They’ve got a really good mix. It took them awhile to find themselves because they have a lot of new players.”

There’s a lot of mutual respect between Auriemma and Fernandez which long predates the AAC. The two will get to face at least two more times as conference foes before UConn heads for the Big East and USF finally gets a chance to win some well-deserved conference trophies.

It can’t be considered a rivalry since the Bulls haven’t won. But considering the destruction UConn has imparted on the conference over the last seven years, USF can at least take solace in the fact that it contained the Huskies better than anyone else.

Future of the series

With UConn moving to the Big East next year, the Huskies will no longer face USF in conference play. However, it sounds like a future non-conference series may be in the works.

“I know that there’s been some talk between (Senior Associate Director of Athletics) Neal [Eskin], who does a lot of our scheduling, and their people (at USF), so they’ve been talking back and forth,” Auriemma said. “A lot of things need to be ironed out because there’s 20 conference games next year instead of 16 so that’s four less non-conference games that we have and we have a lot of commitments going forward. So when can that get cleared up? We’ll see.”

As Auriemma alluded to, the move to the Big East and a 20-game conference schedule means UConn has just 10 non-conference games to work with in order to stay under the NCAA limit. At the moment, the Huskies have 12 non-conference games scheduled for 2020-21 and another up in the air against Louisville, which isn’t signed but was announced by Cardinals head coach Jeff Walz.

UConn has already worked to move matchups with two schools but if Louisville gets added, that means another game will need to get pushed to a different year. Because of that, it would seem unlikely for USF to get added to the 2020-21 non-conference slate. However, Auriemma wants a Florida trip to be a staple on the schedule, so anything is possible.

“Even beyond our relationship that we have with Jose, it’s about the relationship we have with 5,000 of our fans that show up every time that we play there,” Auriemma said. “I’m sure I’m going to hear from them if we don’t play down there. We have to find a way to get at least one game in Florida on a regular basis.”

Recruiting update

Women’s basketball recruiting isn’t as publicized as football or men’s basketball recruiting is which makes it difficult to figure out which prospects Auriemma and his staff are actively pursuing. However, 2021 guard Caroline Ducharme has emerged as a target for UConn.

The Milton, Massachusetts native has attended two games this season: The win over Notre Dame in December and the loss to Oregon in early February. According to the Boston Globe, Auriemma watched Ducharme play in Rhode Island last Saturday, Feb. 8.

Currently, the Huskies have two commitments in the class of 2021: Amari DeBerry, the fifth-ranked player in the class and Saylor Poffenbarger, the No. 17 player.

Ducharme can’t take any official visits until after the Final Four, though she did tell the Globe that she wanted to commit before the end of her current school year in late May.

Adebayo to try hand at coaching

As a graduate transfer to UConn, Evelyn Adebayo has gotten a front-row seat to watch the best coaching staff in women’s basketball. Now, the London native will get a chance to try it herself. Adebayo will participate in the WBCA’s “So You Think You Can Coach” class, a three-day program from April 2-4 in New Orleans (unless UConn reaches the Final Four).

Auriemma explained that Adebayo has shown an interest in coaching all season long and believes the workshop will give her a chance to see if coaching really is for her.

“She’s very inquisitive, she’s very curious, she’s always asking me things about coaching,” Auriemma said. “I think they go to those things and they get to find out ‘Hey, if you think coaching is just going to practice and going ‘Do this.’’ It’s a lot more involved than that and she’s very curious. I’ll be anxious to see what she gets back what she learned from that.”