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UConn WBB Weekly: How much of an impact will the Huskies’ freshmen make this season?

Find out who we expect to be stuffing the stat sheet during their first year in Storrs.

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Hopkins Paige Bueckers plays during the 2019 season Photo by Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Welcome to the UConn WBB Weekly, a recap of everything that happened in the world of UConn women’s basketball over the past week!

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From The UConn Blog and StorrsCentral:

ICYMI - Last Week’s Weekly:

Elsewhere


In The News

UConn in the mix for top 2022 point guard

UConn is in the top 11 for Kiki Rice, the No. 5 overall player and the top point guard in the class of 2022, per ESPNW’s rankings. The Huskies are competing for the services of the 2019-20 DC Gatorade Player of the Year’s services along with Arizona, Boston College, Duke, Louisville, Maryland, Michigan, Stanford, UCLA, UNC, and Yale.

Rice is the third 2022 prospect to receive an offer from UConn, joining Lauren Betts (No. 1 in the class) and Ayanna Patterson (No. 3). The Huskies also have one 2022 commitment in Isuneh Brady, the No. 2 player in the class. They currently have three scholarships open.

Irwin signs in Germany

Kyla Irwin’s basketball career is continuing in Germany. The former UConn forward announced that she signed with SNP Bascats USC Heidelberg, located in Heidelberg, Germany.

Irwin is the eighth former Husky to sign in Europe and the third non-WNBA player along with Batouly Camara (CB Bembibre, Spain) and Evelyn Adebayo (Phantoms Boom, Belgium). As for the WNBA players, Napheesa Collier (Hatay Büyükşehir Belediyespor) and Bria Hartley (Galatasaray Basketbol) are signed in Turkey, Katie Lou Samuelson (CB Avenida) will play in Spain, and Megan Walker and Gabby Williams (Sopron Basket) are on the same team in Hungary.

Espinoza-Hunter opts-out

Former UConn forward Andra Epinoza-Hunter announces she will opt-out of her senior season at Mississippi State:


Great expectations

Freshman year is notoriously difficult at UConn. As Geno Auriemma said last season, only one person in the history of the program — Maya Moore — came to Storrs ready to play college basketball during their first year.

Breanna Stewart came out of the gate strong but dipped midseason — hitting a low point with just seven minutes played in a loss to Baylor — before breaking out for the NCAA Tournament and leading UConn to a national championship. Diana Taurasi had an up-and-down campaign and shot 1-15 in the Final Four against Notre Dame. Megan Walker, meanwhile, never figured it out during her freshman season and had to wait until year No. 2 to find her way into consistent minutes.

With six freshmen coming in this season, UConn will need at least some of them to contribute. Auriemma put it this way: Great upperclassmen are the first ingredient needed for success, but freshmen can make or break a team. The coach believes he has the right upperclassmen in Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Evina Westbrook, Christyn Williams, Aubrey Griffin, and Anna Makurat. With that base, the freshmen can then help put the team over the top.

“If you have the right freshmen, great things can happen,” Auriemma said. “These kids are full of life, they’re full of energy, they want to learn, they want to compete.”

UConn is undoubtably going to be a top-five team whenever the season begins and will be a national championship contender. That’s been the case every year since 1995 and will continue to be at least until Auriemma retires. The freshmen can be the difference between the Huskies being just another team in the mix like the last two seasons, or being the team to beat like they were from 2013-2018.

If the first few workouts are any indication, Auriemma is expecting the latter.

“I think the freshmen are going to contribute immensely to what we’re doing,” he said. “Not just because they have to, but because they’re really good. They’re really good. We’re going to surprise some people, I think. We’re gonna be pretty good.

“We’re going to win more games than we lose,” he then added sarcastically.

It’s unrealistic to think everyone will play consistently — there just aren’t enough minutes to go around. But from the early returns, Auriemma sounds impressed with the freshmen and if we take him at his word, they’ll see plenty of action.

Just how much, though? We won’t know until the ball goes up. But we can make some predictions based on past history and some comparable players.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The Returners

To understand where the freshmen fit in, first we need to talk about the returners. The Huskies bring five players back from last season: Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook, Williams, Griffin, and Makurat. Unless one of the freshmen really wows in preseason or one of the returners disappoints, there’s a good chance the names above are UConn’s starting lineup when the season begins.

As long as Nelson-Ododa stays out of foul trouble, she’ll have a monopoly on the minutes at center. Williams projects to be the team’s leading scorer, though Makurat could challenge her for it. Westbrook seems in line to handle point guard duties while Griffin will once again be a disruptive force defensively and on the boards, hopefully adding a more refined game on offense as well.

Those players will carry the Huskies, which means the freshmen will need to fill in the gaps.

Paige Bueckers

One of the most-hyped players to come to UConn in a long time — if not ever — and the No. 1 player in her class, Bueckers projects to be the most impactful freshman. Auriemma has both fanned the flames of her hype — “There’s some things that she does that other players wish they could do,” he said a few weeks back — and reeled in expectations.

When you combine the last five No. 1 players to come to UConn (Williams, Megan Walker, Katie Lou Samuelson, Stewart, and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis), they averaged 11.6 points, 1.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. However, that isn’t a great comparison to Bueckers, since none of them were point guards.

So let’s also look at Crystal Dangerfield, the last elite point guard at UConn. She averaged 6.1 points and 3.7 assists per game as a freshman.

By using numbers from both the No. 1 players and Dangerfield, a reasonable baseline for Buckers seems to be 11.0 points and 4.0 assists per game. However, a better way to measure her success as a freshman may not be by her overall stat line but by the impact she makes by the end of the year, which is less quantifiable.

Stewart’s freshman year stats aren’t spectacular, but she powered UConn to a national championship with her play at the end of the season. Dangerfield, meanwhile, didn’t factor into the Huskies’ rotation after the opening game of the NCAA Tournament.

Though Bueckers is regarded as a transcendent talent, she probably won’t be one of the best players in the country from the jump. If she has that stat line above and is one of UConn’s better players by March (or whenever the postseason is), that’ll be a great place to start her path to greatness.

Aaliyah Edwards

After Bueckers, the player Auriemma may be most excited about seems to be Aaliyah Edwards. The few times he’s been asked about Edwards, the coach has been effusive in his praise.

“The first time I saw Aaliyah play was in Florida...I was watching the game and I went ‘Oh my god, this kid is just relentless.’ I’ve never seen a kid just attack the game as hard as this kid attacks the game,” Auriemma said on The Geno Auriemma Show. “The whole time I just couldn’t take my eyes off her and I remember saying to CD and those guys, I said ‘CD, we gotta get this kid.’”

That sounds a lot like the way Auriemma used to describe Napheesa Collier and the comparison goes further. Both players were wings in high school, but Collier was moved to the post. Edward’s size (6-foot-3) indicates a similar move could be in her future.

As a freshman, Collier earned the seventh-most minutes on the loaded 2015-16 squad and while this team certainly isn’t as good, Edwards could fill a similar role as a high motor, athletic post player.

The 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game that Collier recorded as a freshman is a high bar for Edwards. But from what everything Auriemma has said about her — and the way he’s said it — along with the void in the frontcourt behind Nelson-Ododa, Edwards could well be up for the task.

Canada’s Aaliyah Edwards and Dominican Republic’s Giocelis... Photo by Ron Palmer/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Mir McLean

You don’t need to go back far in UConn women’s basketball history to find an apt comparison for McLean. She projects as an athletic, lanky spark plug off the bench, which sounds an awful lot like Griffin’s role last season.

Though McLean may not have the same opportunities as Griffin — last season, Griffin played the sixth-most minutes on the team and was routinely the first player off the bench — Auriemma will always find minutes for players that crash the boards and cause chaos on defense.

By using Griffin (6.4 points, 5.4 rebounds) as a measuring stick, 5.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game seems like a fair starting point for McLean, accounting for both fewer minutes and a stronger team around her compared to last year’s squad.

Nika Muhl

Of the entire class, Muhl has the toughest road to quality minutes — and it’s not because of her talent. She was regarded as one of the top European recruits available (though ESPN didn’t have her ranked as an international player) and held offers from the likes of Oregon, Louisville, and USF. Similar to Anna Makurat, Muhl should be better prepared to play in college than most American freshmen thanks to playing in a professional environment in Croatia.

At the same time, Muhl is likely at the bottom of a loaded backcourt depth chart simply because of all the talent in front of her. Even if she plays well and impresses, it’ll be tough to find minutes with the likes of Westbrook, Williams, Makurat, and Bueckers all ahead of her — even more so as a pass-first point guard.

A good role for Muhl as a freshman could be as an upgraded version of Molly Bent (1.9 points, 1.0 assist, 9.3 minutes per game in 2019-20), meaning a reserve guard off the bench that can keep things moving on offense, play good defense, and not make too many mistakes. If she can do that, a plausible stat line for Muhl could be 4.0 points and 2.0 assists in 10 minutes per game.

Piath Gabriel

There’s no bigger wildcard in the freshman class than Gabriel. Auriemma admitted she’s a bit of a lottery ticket since athletic players her size (6-foot-5) don’t play basketball as much anymore. She could see a lot of action behind Nelson-Ododa and become a force defensively and on the boards as a freshmen, or she could also end up barely seeing the court at all.

There aren’t many reasonable comparisons for Gabriel, either. UConn has rarely brought in players with Gabriel’s size and the few they have — Nelson-Ododa, Kiah Stokes and Stefanie Dolson in recent memory — all were top-50 recruits.

One way or another, the Huskies will need to have a plan for when Nelson-Ododa isn’t on the court — whether that be due to foul trouble or simply to give the junior a breather. In all likelihood, Auriemma will opt for a small-ball lineup like he did last year with either Griffin, Edwards, or McLean at the 5 instead of Gabriel.

If she could be a poor woman’s Natalie Butler (5.5 points, 4.6 rebounds in two years at UConn) — a big body off the bench that can grab rebounds and defend — that would be a great start for the freshman. 1.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in five minutes per game would give her a solid base to build off of.

Autumn Chassion

Despite being a priority walk-on, it would be unfair to expect anything out of the freshman from Louisiana. She’s not only buried on the overall depth chart, Chassion also plays in a deep backcourt. Unless she proves to be the feel-good story of the year, it’s unlikely Chassion will see any action outside the fourth quarter in blowouts. Any production she adds will be a bonus.


Best of social media

Batouly Camara is officially with her new team in Spain, CB Bembibre. She also shared a story about the injury that kept her out for most of her senior season at UConn:

UConn recognizes its former players pushing for change in the WNBA:

Some high, high praise for Crystal Dangerfield:

Sue Bird is a national treasure (but we already knew this):

Never change, Diana. Never change:

Nice little video feature on Nika Muhl. One of the more interesting tidbits from the feature: she only started playing basketball 5-6 years ago.

History Corner

Just a couple more examples of how UConn is so much better than even the second-best program in women’s college basketball: