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UConn WBB Weekly: How the Huskies create positionless basketball players

UConn hasn’t had a very versatile roster over the last few years but this year’s team is built to change that.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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How UConn creates postionless basketball players

Versatility has always been a hallmark of Geno Auriemma’s program. While the concept of postionless basketball has taken over the sport in the last few years, UConn women’s basketball has been doing it for years — at least in theory.

While the Huskies’ talent level has remained high and allowed the team to continue to compete for national championships on an annual basis the last few years, they haven’t been as flexible as Auriemma would prefer.

“If somebody said, ‘What’s the what’s the difference? What have you seen in the last couple of years?’ I would say we’ve lacked the ability to move people around and put them in a lot of different spots,” he said last November. “We’ve been kind of pigeonholed into ‘This kid has to do this, this kid has to do that, this kid has to do this, this kid has to do that.’”

This year’s team is built to change that. When the current freshman class signed their letters of intent to UConn, one of Auriemma’s first comments highlighted the versatility of the players.

“We had gotten commitments from three players that we needed to get in our program. Three kinds of kids that we needed to get,” he said. “We’re slowly but surely getting back to what our comfort level is, which is players that can play multiple positions that are versatile and can be used in any which way that we really need at that particular time.”

That last line — using players in any way depending on what’s needed — is likely how the Huskies’ rotation will be built this season. They have 14 players on the roster — 10 of whom have either proven themselves at the college level or have the resume to earn a spot on the floor — but realistically, only eight or nine of them are going to see double-digit minutes.

The focus shouldn’t be on playing time, though. Instead, UConn’s depth and talent could allow Auriemma and his staff to mix-and-match lineups based on how the game is playing out. That’s where versatility comes in.

The goal isn’t to just have 14 players who can all do one job, though. With multi-faceted threats that can do a handful of different things on the court, the Huskies will be tougher to game plan against and will have multiple ways to win games.

In 2019-20, UConn needed to hit a lot of 3-pointers in order to beat top-ranked teams. Last season, the Huskies needed Paige Bueckers to have a big scoring night and Olivia Nelson-Ododa to hold her own in the post. UConn got that from both players in the Elite Eight against Baylor, but didn’t in the Final Four loss to Arizona.

Ideally, the Huskies won’t be so one-dimensional this season. While it helps to have players capable of filling in at different spots, it’s a learned skill more than a natural trait — and it’s also not for everyone.

To develop that, UConn moves certain players around in practice. For example, Aubrey Griffin often works with the forwards but when the Huskies officially opened the preseason a few weeks back, she was spotted with the guards.

“We take players like that — we did it with Stewie (Breanna Stewart) and Gabby (Williams) and Lou (Katie Lou Samuelson) — we move them around so that they don’t stay in one spot too long,” Auriemma said.

Becoming more of a threat around the perimeter has been a focus for Griffin this offseason. During summer workouts, Auriemma pushed the junior to shoot the ball more often after she took just 20 3-pointers and three mid-range jumpers as a sophomore.

Griffin can no longer spend most of her time in the paint. She was the top back-up to Nelson-Ododa as a freshman, but UConn’s frontcourt has gotten much stronger since then with the additions of Aaliyah Edwards and Dorka Juhász. Griffin’s playing time will no longer be out of necessity.

If she can develop her guard skills, Griffin can still fill in at the five in a small-ball lineup but will also be able to play with two other bigs on the floor at the same time — or any other combination that Auriemma wants to use.

Freshmen Caroline Ducharme and Saylor Poffenbarger are also getting the same treatment. Both players are a similar mold to Katie Lou Samuelson — tall guards (both are 6-foot-2, Samuelson is 6-foot-3) who were regarded as elite 3-point shooters out of high school.

Auriemma pushed Samuelson to become more of a threat in the post as a senior, though the results varied. She had a 26-point, 16 rebound performance against Seton Hall which sparked a six-game stretch in which she had five double-doubles. From then on, Samuelson grabbed more 10 rebounds just once.

That step is way down the road for Ducharme and Poffenbarger, though. Right now, Auriemma would be happy if they could use their height from the 3-point line.

“We’re trying to find some big bodies that can shoot the ball well from the perimeter so we can stretch people out, stretch out our offense a little bit,” he said. “We’re experimenting with a lot of that.”

Edwards could also be part of that solution. For as impressive as she was as a freshman, the next step in her game will come when she can step out and consistently hit shots from around the arc. It helped that Edwards played as a wing while with the Canadian national team this summer, so that could help her translate those skills into her game at UConn.

The emergence of a more well-rounded Edwards is a tantalizing thought. Imagine if the Huskies could effectively use a lineup that featured Nelson-Ododa and Juhász in the post with Edwards out on the wing?

While that’s just one possibility, it’s the perfect example of why Auriemma values versatility so much. UConn already has so much talent on its roster, having players that can take on different roles or play in different spots would help take the team to a different level.

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