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Despite recent breakout, Anna Makurat can’t break into UConn’s starting lineup

The freshman has been one of the Huskies’ best players recently but continues to come in off the bench.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Over the first 13 games of the season, Anna Makurat played 25 minutes or more just five times. But in the last eight games, she’s reached that mark all but once. Despite that, Geno Auriemma has kept Makurat on the bench at the start of games, instead tabbing senior forward Kyla Irwin for the starting five.

While Auriemma routinely praises Irwin for her basketball IQ, work ethic and knowledge of the offense, Makurat has emerged as the more impactful player at this point in the season. Over that eight-game span, the Polish guard is averaging 11 points per game — including 21 point and 24 point performances. Outside of scoring, she’s grabbing 4.75 rebounds and 3.88 assists per game. Irwin, on the other hand, has scored just 11 points total over that time with 2.38 rebounds and 1.25 rebounds per game.

Considering the way both players are trending, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to understand why Irwin gets the nod over Makurat. One possibility as to why Irwin continues to start is to keep the pressure off Makurat and keep her in the groove she’s in. The freshman started four games this season — including both exhibitions — but Auriemma put her on the bench for the season opener because he felt the moment was too big for her.

Ultimately, who starts is more of a formality than anything. Auriemma pointed to Makurat’s minutes this season — fifth-most on the team — to highlight that fact. However, the coach did hint that changes could be coming.

“I think there’s going to come a point where we’re going to have to get her into the game sooner, whether that’s as a starter or I don’t know. But I know she has to be in the game sooner and I know she has to touch the ball more and she has to make more plays,” Auriemma said. “So if that means I have to change the starting lineup, that’s what I’m going to do. But her minutes are not going to [change]...You always like someone coming off the bench that can spark the offense a little bit. But at the same time, sometimes you don’t have the luxury of being able to do that.”

As for Makurat, she isn’t worried about her designation as a starter or reserve. She’s happy to do whatever the coaches ask of her.

“I started a couple times at halftime and I don’t see a difference, no,” she said. “I’m comfortable whatever they need me. It’s their decision, I’m just playing basketball.”

Sophomore struggles

UConn sophomores Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams both came into the season with high expectations. Auriemma declared that Nelson-Ododa was the most important player on the team, while Williams was coming off one of the best freshman seasons in recent memory and looked primed to build on it.

But so far, this season hasn’t gone as planned for either player. Williams — despite averaging 15.3 points per game, third on the team — admitted before the holiday break that she felt like she was struggling. Immediately after that, she appeared to hit her stride with five games in a row with 16-plus points, only to fail to even reach double-figures in three of her last six games.

As for Nelson-Ododa, she scored at least 10 points in all but three games before the new year along with five double-doubles. But since 2020 began, she’s recorded 10 points just three times in 11 games without a double-double.

Considering Dangerfield and Walker are the only impact upperclassmen on the team, UConn needs its sophomores if it wants to reach its 13th-straight Final Four. Auriemma understands that but at the same time, knows that a players’ second year can be just as trying as freshman year at times.

“It’s been a series of ups and downs and the ups have been really, really high and the lows have not been so great,” he said. “I think that’s typical of kids their sophomore year.”

While freshman year is about acclimating to the college life and game as a whole, sophomore year is an adjustment in role while dealing with the extra attention from defenses.

“[Williams’] freshman year, she really was like an afterthought on offense so she got to do whatever she wanted,” Auriemma said. “The competition that she was playing against, she wasn’t the focal point of what they were trying to stop. Then you get to be a sophomore and people have watched you play for a whole year and now you come out and you’re trying to do it the exact same way you did it as a freshman and you realize that everything’s harder, the guys you’re playing against are better, the people are guarding you different because they know you’re a big focal point of our offense.”

Nelson-Ododa and Williams aren’t going to reach their full potential by the end of the season. That’s just not realistic considering both the time left and their respective experience. But they can get to a point where they limit how low the lows are while still maintaining those peaks — such as Nelson-Ododa’s 27-point, 15-rebound performance against Oklahoma or Williams’ 26-point, five-rebound, four-assist night at ECU.

As the postseason rapidly approaches, that’s going to be Auriemma’s focus with his sophomores. And he’s going to take it one day at a time.

“Every day is a new day,” he said.

Seeding? Don’t talk about seeding

For the first time in seven seasons, UConn is staring at the possibility of losing three or more games this season. The Huskies travel to No. 1 South Carolina on Monday, a matchup that will be just as tough — if not tougher — than Oregon.

If UConn does fall down in Columbia, it’s possible the Huskies could drop to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. What does that mean? Well, if you ask Auriemma, it doesn’t mean anything.

“Who cares? Who cares? Seriously. Who cares? Who cares? I mean really,” he said. “I’m to the point where do I really think if you don’t beat Baylor and you don’t beat Oregon and you don’t beat South Carolina that you deserve a one or a two seed? No. I could care less. Really. Everybody had a heart attack last year, we were a number two seed. So what? So what? It doesn’t matter. Once March comes, here’s the teams you gotta play, go play. Who you’re seeded against, I could care less.”

If anything, Auriemma wishes he could’ve taken some of these losses in the past. In December of 2016, he declared that “We need a good old-fashioned ass kicking right about now.” The Huskies promptly beat DePaul 91-46 the following game.

This season, UConn is the only team to play South Carolina, Baylor and Oregon, the top three teams in the AP Poll and the consensus best three teams in the nation by a wide margin. The fact that the Huskies lost their first two games against those teams isn’t a surprise. That’s what Auriemma expects.

“I wouldn’t schedule these games if I wanted to win every game,” he said. “For all those years that we won all those games, I kept scheduling games thinking ‘Today’s the day man. We need an ass-kicking really bad.’”

But Auriemma never got his wish.

“It would never happen. It would never happen. And I wanted it to happen so bad,” Auriemma said. “This team I don’t want it to happen because they don’t need that. But some of those other teams I was hoping they’d get their butts beat so bad. And they kept winning and kept winning and kept winning. It was really frustrating.”

Dangerfield recovering

After Christyn Williams missed time prior to Oregon after coming down with the flu, Crystal Dangerfield said she was recovering from a minor ailment that kept her out of practice on Wednesday. While the senior didn’t go into specifics, she did say it wasn’t the same thing Williams had. However, it doesn’t seem like it will affect Dangerfield’s availability for Friday.