Inside the women’s basketball practice gym at the Werth Family Champions Center, UConn’s current players are constantly reminded of the program’s history. The Huskies’ 11 national championship banners hang on one wall, while the 11 gold medalist who played in Storrs are honored on the opposite side. Along the court, all the former national players of the year and First Team All-Americans are displayed along the wall.
While it’s an impressive flex for UConn, Geno Auriemma recently wondered if maybe it was all a little too much.
“For the first time ever, I actually contemplated taking all the names off of the wall in our practice facility of all the kids who made national player of the year and First Team All-American,” he said. “I actually thought about taking them down because I think it scares the daylights out of some kids when they come in here to play.”
On one hand, it motivates the current players to get better so they can eventually be up on the wall and helps establish the standard for them to live up to.
“I think when they get here, they’re looking around and saying ‘I want to be that good.’ And is that realistic? Well, sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not,” Auriemma said. “So being reminded of that every day, is that inspiring? Is that like ‘Yeah, that’s why I came here...because I want to represent that’?”
At the same time, Auriemma wondered if the non-stop reminders can be counterproductive when it comes to the development of certain players.
“With some kids, I think it scares the daylights out of them. That, ‘I can never be that.’ But it’s okay. You don’t have to be that,” he said. “So for us the message is: ‘We don’t need you to come here and be just like that. We need you to be the best version of yourself because that’s going to help us win a national championship and it’s going to help you get to where you’re going.’ But the hype they’re getting from the outside, probably, is a different message.”
While Auriemma discussed players being “the best version” of themselves in the context of development, it could also apply to UConn’s rotation crunch. There’s 14 players on the roster and only eight or nine are expected to play double-digit minutes according to the coach. But maybe we shouldn’t look at the rotation through the lens of dividing up playing time and instead focus on what individuals can contribute.
We know Paige Bueckers, Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams are the core of the team and will play a bulk of the minutes regardless. For everyone else, if UConn is as deep as it appears to be, Auriemma and his staff can mix-and-match around those three depending on what the situation calls for.
Maybe the “best version” of Olivia Nelson-Ododa is as a point forward who mostly distributes and isn’t relied on to score as much. If the Huskies need points in the paint, then they could turn to Dorka Juhász or Aaliyah Edwards, for example.
Or in the backcourt, Bueckers, Westbrook and Williams will shoulder most of the scoring load, which is why Nika Mühl’s so valuable. She isn’t a scorer and won’t need to be with the talented guards on the roster, which will allowed her to play to her strengths instead of trying to do something outside her skillset.
“Once we harness her energy and her toughness and her emotions, she adds something to our team that no one else has,” Auriemma said of Mühl. “She actually has a physical toughness about her that I don’t know that anybody else in our team has. I love that. I love that about her. She’s relentless.”
If offense is tough for to come by on a given night, UConn could lean on Caroline Ducharme and Azzi Fudd for scoring and 3-point shooting.
Those are just a few possibilities. UConn’s rotation could change game-to-game to fit its needs best instead of just using the same seven or eight players every night like last season.
“There’s going to be an opportunity for us to take advantage of opportunities where people’s skills — like, we need some rebounding, we need to get a couple of stops, we need to get a bucket — we can put people in for what we need,” Auriemma explained. “I thought last year we were kind of stuck in that the same players had to play extended minutes and hopefully that won’t be the case this year.”
For UConn to become the best version of itself, it needs to take advantage of the depth on the roster. The key to that could be building the rotation based on skillsets, needs and opportunities rather than simply dividing up minutes.
Other notes from First Night
- First Night got off to a great start with a packed house at Gampel Pavilion that created an electric atmosphere during player introductions. After that, things quickly went off the rails. Gampel’s operations staff couldn’t set up the second hoop on the court which didn’t allow either team to scrimmage. A few of the men’s basketball players held an impromptu dunk contest — which also featured a slam from Amari DeBerry — while the women’s basketball team played a non-competitive 4-on-4, half-court scrimmage for 10 minutes.
- Aubrey Griffin’s been snakebitten this preseason. After returning from a back issue, she collided with someone on the court and sprained her ankle. As a result, Griffin’s sat out the last four or five days of practice, according to Auriemma, and didn’t participate in the First Night scrimmage.
- Saylor Poffenbarger has also had a tough fall. She dealt with a back injury since the summer and after recovering from that, she got sick and missed a few days of practice.
“There hasn’t been anytime she’s been with us [where she’s practiced] three, four or five days in a row to kind of get a rhythm going,” Auriemma said of Poffenbarger. “She’s been here the last two days, so that’s good.”
- UConn’s two 2022 commits, Ayanna Patterson and Isuneh Brady, and Kiki Rice, the No. 2 player in the class, were court side at First Night.