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UConn WBB Weekly: The top storylines heading into the Huskies’ 2021-22 season

With fans back in arenas, a deep roster and high expectations, UConn’s upcoming campaign should be one of the most entertaining in recent memory.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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The top storylines heading into the Huskies’ 2021-22 season

It all begins on Sunday. In four days, UConn women’s basketball will open the 2021-22 season against Arkansas at the XL Center with no shortage of excitement. After a year with cardboard cutouts filling up empty arenas, the Huskies will once again play in front of full capacity crowds in their second season back in the Big East, with high expectations on tap.

UConn is looking to snap a five-year title drought — tied for its longest since 1995. The Huskies returned nearly their entire roster and reloaded with a strong class of newcomers, which earned them the No. 2 spot in the AP Preseason Poll behind South Carolina and ahead of Stanford, the defending champs.

All in all, it’s shaping up to be one of the most fun seasons in recent memory. There won’t be any shortage of storylines, either.

How does the rotation pan out?

UConn has its deepest roster in years with 14 players total — most of whom project to be in the rotation. In the Huskies’ exhibition against Fort Hays State, Geno Auriemma played nine different players in the first half — Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams started while Caroline Ducharme, Azzi Fudd, Dorka Juhász and Nika Mühl came off the bench. Aubrey Griffin sat out with a high ankle sprain.

It’s a departure from the last 4-5 years, when UConn’s rotation rarely ran more than six or seven players deep. While finding enough minutes for everyone will create a headache for Auriemma, he’s not complaining.

“It’s actually a pretty good problem to have,” Auriemma said on Sunday. “I just don’t know right now how that’s going to play out. Whether it’s nine, 10, eight, 11, I don’t know. ... It depends on the game. I don’t know. That’s going to be fun to find out.”

Those aforementioned 10 players appear to be pretty firmly in the circle of trust, though exactly how the playing time is divided up among them will evolve throughout the season and could even change depending on the opponent. Every night, it’ll be fascinating to watch how UConn manages and utilizes its newfound depth.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Expectations for Fudd, freshmen class

As of Thursday, it’s been exactly one year since Fudd committed to UConn on her 18th birthday. The No. 1 prospect in the class of 2021 has been hailed as a generational player who may even be better than her best friend and teammate Paige Bueckers. While it’s unrealistic to expect Fudd to reach the same heights as Bueckers considering the latter just completed the best freshman season in the history of the sport, there’s still plenty of buzz around the first-year guard — and for good reason.

In the exhibition, Fudd showed off her incredible shooting ability by starting out 3-3 from beyond the arc and also flashed a willingness to defend that hasn’t been discussed much. Postgame, Auriemma gave the freshman a glowing review.

“She’s a basketball player, flat out,” he said. “She’s not just gonna be out there, knock in a couple and then come out. She’s playing the game of basketball and that’s what’s special about her. She’s not just one-dimensional.”

While Fudd gets most of the attention, Ducharme has also impressed coaches and teammates alike with a quiet style that lets her performance speak for itself. At 6-foot-2, she’s a tall guard with length who sneaks up on, well, pretty much everyone.

“They don’t know how she does it but she beats their ass,” Auriemma said over the summer. “But they don’t know how she does it. They just walk away shaking her head.”

Both Fudd and Ducharme seem to be in line for plenty of playing time, though exactly how much of an impact they make is still up in the air. UConn already has a deep backcourt with Bueckers, Mühl, Westbrook and Williams, but the two freshmen have skillsets that differentiate them from the other four players. It’ll be fun to see how they develop.

As for the other two freshmen, Amari DeBerry and Saylor Poffenbarger, both have dealt with their share of adversity this offseason. Poffenbarger hasn’t been on the court much due to a myriad of injuries while DeBerry has struggled to adjust to the collegiate level. Auriemma has been complementary of DeBerry’s skill level but she’ll likely need more time until she’s ready to play significant minutes.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Can the seniors finally put it all together?

Through three years of their career at UConn, Nelson-Ododa and Williams have been better known for their inconsistencies than their exploits on the court. Nelson-Ododa has shown a propensity for beating up on smaller, weaker teams while fading in big moments while Williams has often followed up strings of high-scoring performances with nights in the single digits.

Williams at least seemed to turn a corner last postseason when she emerged as UConn’s top defender and became a reliable secondary scorer to Bueckers.

The same can’t be said for Nelson-Ododa. Though she flourished as a point forward while Edwards put up big scoring numbers in the NCAA Tournament, the center had one of the worst performances of her career in the Final Four loss to Arizona.

As seniors, time is running out for both players. Williams needs to prove she can play with the intensity and aggressiveness that we saw in the postseason night-in and night-out, while Nelson-Ododa will have to shake her reputation as someone who can’t be trusted against teams with size. This is their last shot to change the narrative.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Dorka Juhász’s fit

No player impressed more than Dorka Juhász in UConn’s exhibition. The Ohio State transfer dominated in her 15 minutes with 15 points on 7-10 shooting and eight rebounds despite missing most of the preseason with a thigh injury.

Even with the standout performance, Juhász will share the frontcourt with Nelson-Ododa and Edwards this season, which puts her role into question. While those two played well together last season, Juhász’s injury has prevented her from building the same on-court chemistry with either player — or any of her teammates, for that matter.

Despite her shortcomings, Nelson-Ododa is still the most experienced big and seems to have Auriemma’s trust, and Edwards’ physicality and toughness can’t be replicated. There’s no question Juhász will play an important role for the Huskies this season, but we don’t know exactly how Auriemma will deploy her.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Will the 3-point shooting improve?

Two years ago, UConn needed to be the best 3-point shooting team in the nation to overcome its many flaws and finish the shortened season at 29-3. Last year, the Huskies made it to the Final Four in spite of their 3-point shooting, which sat at 35.6 percent — 32.1 percent if you remove Bueckers’ contributions.

UConn did add two sharpshooters in Fudd and Ducharme who should improve that number, though there do need to be some internal improvements from the likes of Nelson-Ododa (26.7 percent from three last season), Westbrook (33.9 percent) and Williams (34.3 percent) as well.

While UConn hit 9-21 (42.9 percent) from three in the exhibition and Auriemma mentioned the team shot well in its closed-door scrimmage against Boston College, the Huskies need to prove they can consistently make shots from beyond the arc. Without that, it’ll be difficult, but not impossible, to beat Stanford and South Carolina.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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