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Geno Auriemma to “wait and see” with early-enrollee Saylor Poffenbarger

Poffenbarger will face a steep learning curve as the first freshman in program history to join the Huskies mid-season.

Maryland girls basketball state finals | Class 2A River Hill vs. Middletown
Saylor Poffenbarger (right) goes for the steal during a game in March.
Photo by Terrance Williams for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Despite being in his 36th year as a head coach, and of course very accomplished, Geno Auriemma had a first this past week. On Friday, UConn women’s basketball officially added 2021 signee Saylor Poffenbarger — the first time the Huskies have ever brought in a freshman mid-season.

While she wasn’t originally expected to arrive in Storrs until this summer, Poffenbarger graduated from high school last week. Since her high school season hadn’t begun and the NCAA granted all winter athletes an extra year of eligibility this year, she had a lot to gain from joining early and not much to lose.

“If school is over for you and the [high school] season has been canceled and you think you want a change from where you are and you want to get acclimated and have a chance to play and practice, why not take advantage of it?” Auriemma explained.

Auriemma confirmed that UConn’s other 2021 signees, Amari DeBerry, Caroline Ducharme and Azzi Fudd, won’t be joining the team this season.

Before she can begin, Poffenbarger must complete a school-mandated 10-day quarantine. If all goes well, she’ll be allowed to join the team on Thursday, Jan. 28.

Once Poffenbarger gets on the court, she’ll have a steep climb ahead of her. Not only is she roughly six months behind the Huskies’ six other freshmen, she also hasn’t played much competitive basketball since March due to the pandemic and hip surgery in June.

Because of all that, Auriemma isn’t setting any expectations for Poffenbarger.

“I don’t know where Saylor is at this point,” he said. “For me, it’s just a wait and see — an opportunity to throw in there and let her practice.”

However, Poffenbarger could make an impact this season. Listed at 6-foot-2, she’s a big, versatile guard, which will allow Auriemma and his staff to move her around on the floor.

“A kid like Saylor: We needed somebody that could play a lot of different positions and had a feel for the game,” he said after she signed her letter of intent back in November.

That versatility could help Poffenbarger find minutes in a deep backcourt that features the likes of Paige Bueckers, Anna Makurat, Nika Muhl, Christyn Williams, and Evina Westbrook, all of whom play substantial minutes. Four of those players start, though, leaving Muhl as the only backcourt option off the bench. And unlike Muhl, who typically only plays point guard, Poffenbarger could come off the bench and plug into a handful of different spots.

The Middletown, Maryland native is also regarded as a lights-out three-point shooter, which happens to be an area the Huskies have struggled in for much of the season. If Makurat returns to the starting lineup, Poffenbarger would finally give UConn a three-point option off the bench.

At the same time, Poffenbarger might not see much time this season. The learning curve might be too steep or the rotation too deep for her to crack, and that would be completely fine. Plenty of players that went on to have successful careers at UConn struggled as freshmen despite having a full offseason in a normal year. Poffenbarger is walking into an even more difficult situation.

Because of that, this season should be viewed as preparation for her “real” freshman year next fall. If Poffenbarger manages to work her way into the rotation and produces, that’ll be a bonus.

“Maybe she gets in a game, maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she contributes, maybe she doesn’t. I don’t know,” Auriemma said. “I think all that remains to be seen but being out on the court and practicing, I think those are those are things that are beneficial.”

Earlier this month, Auriemma was asked about the possibility of bringing in a 2021 signee early. Though he didn’t confirm or deny that UConn would do it, he mentioned that if it were to happen, a player would need to be mature enough to step right into college basketball from high school — in addition to fulfilling the necessary eligibility requirements.

Since they brought Poffenbarger in, Auriemma and his staff clearly think she’s up for the task. But sometimes the coach’s perception of a recruit doesn’t necessarily hold up once they join the team.

“It’s been my experience that me talking to a kid — I don’t care how many times, on the phone or whatever — over the years and then when they get here and they spend a month here, there’s a pretend ‘I think I can see who’s mature and who’s not,’ and then there’s the reality that happens a month after you’ve been here,” he said. “I’m finding that out every day. So do I think Saylor’s mature enough to handle this? Yeah. Am I positive, 100%? I don’t know. I don’t know. My guess is she’s gonna handle it great.”