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Geno’s returning players more prepared to carry the load this season

All four UConn women’s basketball returners have made substantial strides over the offseason.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Last season, the UConn women’s basketball team wasn’t prepared to handle the loss of Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson. Though the Huskies returned four players who saw significant time from the 2017-18 squad, it took all of one game — an ugly 72-61 win over Cal in the season opener — to see that some of those players might’ve been in over their heads in their new roles.

Crystal Dangerfield and Megan Walker proved they were ready for the spotlight, but beyond those two, Christyn Williams was maddeningly inconsistent and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, while much-improved, wasn’t ready to compete with some of the top bigs in the nation.

As for the freshmen, Aubrey Griffin provided a useful spark off the bench with her defense and rebounding but was still raw, while Anna Makurat took half the season to get settled in.

With Dangerfield and Walker having moved on to the WNBA, UConn will rely on Nelson-Ododa, Williams, Griffin, Makurat, and even Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook to drive the bus. The difference between last year, though? The returning players are ready to handle it.

“When you go from freshman, sophomore year where you’re playing but you’re not a focal point of the team but you know you’re important, to now all of a sudden, everyone’s looking at you like ‘Liv, Christyn, Evina, Anna, Aubrey: If you guys aren’t really, really good this year, we’re going to stink.’ So there’s this sense of ‘It’s my time.’ And they’re embracing it. I love it,” Auriemma said.

Each player dealt with different struggles last season, but they’ve all put in the work over the offseason to make sure this season will go differently.

For Williams, a potential breakout campaign will come a year later than most expected. After one of the better freshmen seasons in recent memory, she seemed primed to take another leap as a sophomore. Though her stat line of 14.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game looks good on paper, Williams openly admitted that she was in her own head, which caused her confidence to plummet.

“Looking back on last year, my confidence went down the drain,” Williams said. “Freshman year I was very confident, I’d do whatever. Sophomore year, it was just not good overall. It was not good consistently, and that’s not good.”

After a season full of struggle, quarantine actually proved to be a positive experience for Williams. For the first time in a long time, she didn’t have any basketball obligations such as national team camps or 3x3 tournaments to deal with. It allowed her to step back, hit the reset button, and focus on getting herself in prime shape entering her junior year.

“Christyn just looks like she’s a great athlete now instead of just a high school kid,” Auriemma said. “She looks like a college player now and there’s an intensity level about her now that’s more consistent.”

Williams wasn’t alone with confidence issues. Nelson-Ododa’s season arc looked like an inverted bell curve with strong play to start and end the year, but a dip in the middle.

At the beginning of the season, Auriemma crowned the center as the most important player on the team. In retrospect, that might’ve been too much to ask. Though she dominated smaller, weaker opponents, Nelson-Ododa was completely outmatched against Baylor as she failed to score a point with an 0-8 performance from the floor.

That game sent her into a deep funk. Over the next eight games, she scored double-digit points only three times in that span after hitting the mark in eight of the first 12 games of the season.

For Nelson-Ododa, UConn’s 74-56 loss to Oregon proved to be a watershed moment. After that game, a light went on for the center and she completely overhauled the way she practiced. That turnaround also coincided with Jamelle Elliot joining the staff after Jasmine Lister took a personal leave. Now, Elliot is a full-time assistant, which should only help Nelson-Ododa.

“She’s an amazing coach,” Nelson-Ododa said. “Her being included to the staff like that since February, in practice, it’s just a noticeable difference with energy, with the knowledge that she brings. I’m super excited to continue working with her this season.”

Auriemma also said that Nelson-Ododa “has a completely different mindset”, which should only help her stock keep rising as it did before the season was abruptly canceled.

History shows that most UConn plays with pedigrees similar to Nelson-Ododa and Williams going into their junior year are ready to carry the load. Just look at Walker this past season as a prime example.

It’s the sophomores, Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat, that will decide just how good UConn is.

After finally settling in against Tulsa on Jan. 19, Makurat closed the season averaging 10.7 points per game and 45.1% from three over the last 15 contests. Though she figured it out on the court, Makurat still spent the offseason working with a nutritionist to get into better shape for whenever the season tips off. So far, that’s already paying dividends.

“I think I’m definitely more comfortable,” Makurat said. “It’s an extra energy and strength I gain. It’s definitely easier to focus on all the little things that are important in basketball instead of focusing on being in bad shape.”

Though a player being in the “best shape of their life” is a common cliche throughout all sports entering a preseason, Makurat looked physically different in a recent video posted by the team Twitter account. Auriemma noted the change as well.

“Anna’s completely different. She looks like a completely different person and a completely different player,” he said. “Her conditioning level is just a complete 180 from last year.”

As for Griffin, she excelled as a rebounder and defensive disrupter last season. Most other facets of her game, however, were still rather raw.

Though the lack of organized activities this summer could’ve hurt her development, Griffin still got plenty of time on the basketball court despite the shutdowns. The sophomore spent a lot of time playing with her two brothers: Alan, who is playing at Syracuse after two years at Illinois, and AJ, a 2021 forward committed to Duke.

“They make me tougher because they don’t care,” she said. “They go as hard as if they were playing against a guy. They still dunk on me and stuff. They don’t take it easy.”

In part, those family workouts helped Griffin become “a 100 times better than she was last year,” according to Auriemma. But she didn’t just improve as a basketball player. Auriemma said that Griffin returned with a new demeanor and carries herself like a seasoned veteran now.

“She just looks more mature and conducts herself in a way like ‘I’ve been here,’” Auriemma said. “She’s actually showing some drills to the younger kids.”

The season is still a long way off — especially considering there’s no official starting point yet. Real practices haven’t even kicked off either, so only so much can be gleaned from the work players put in during the offseason and a handful of small group workouts.

But the four returners have put in the necessary work over the offseason and have themselves in position to take the next step whenever the new season begins — even with all the practice restrictions.

Relying on younger players to step up for those who departed is simply part of life in a college basketball program. The difference between this year and last is that the Huskies’ returners are now more prepared to carry the load.