It’s been some time since the frontcourt has been a strength for UConn women’s basketball. Ever since Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck graduated in 2016, the Huskies have been flawed in the post.
Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams were excellent players, but lacked size. Azura Stevens added size but she and Collier didn’t play well together. Olivia Nelson-Ododa has size, Aubrey Griffin has athleticism and Aaliyah Edwards has strength and toughness, but all three lack consistency.
That could finally be set to change this season. Nelson-Ododa is back for her senior season while Griffin and Edwards are another year older. UConn also added 6-foot-5 Ohio State transfer Dorka Juhász, who was a revelation in the exhibition win over Fort Hays State.
The operating word for this group is potential. If everything clicks, the Huskies will have a dynamic, big, strong frontcourt that will pair well with a backcourt that’s potentially the best in the nation. Whether or not they hit can their ceiling — or at least come close — is a massive question mark, though.
Few UConn players have been more enigmatic than Nelson-Ododa. Through three years, she’s had monster performances with high numbers of points, rebounds and blocks but those have mostly come against weak teams that lack size. Against top-tier competition, Nelson-Ododa has often struggled — with the losses to Arkansas and Arizona last season being prime examples.
So what should be expected out of the senior this season? That’s the million-dollar question, one that Geno Auriemma doesn’t even seem to have the answer to.
“I think sometimes you have to improve in subtle ways, whether it’s making the right pass, setting the perfect screen, moving your feet with defense, putting yourself in position offensively so you just have to catch it in school rather than having to dribble two or three times to get a bucket,” he said of Nelson-Ododa on Friday. “So that’s a big question mark…Are we able to get more from Liv more often than we got last season? I think we will. What that is, I’m not sure.”
We did see a subtle change in the first four games of the NCAA Tournament. As Edwards emerged as a scoring threat, Nelson-Ododa transformed herself into a pass-first point forward and had one of the best stretches of her career until the national semifinal. With another year of development from Edwards and the addition of Juhász, that should take the scoring burden off Nelson-Ododa’s shoulders and allow her to play more to her strengths.
A two-time All-Big Ten First Team player at Ohio State, Juhász looked the part in UConn’s exhibition. Despite playing just 15 minutes and missing much of the preseason with a thigh injury, the transfer showed off her ability to score at all three levels, dominated the boards and impressed on defense.
While Juhász still needs to prove she can do that against better teams with the Huskies, she had a good track record at Ohio State and there’s little reason to believe that won’t continue. She could well be a program-changing addition this season.
“I’m really, really, really glad that she’s here,” Auriemma said earlier in this fall. “She could be the difference that puts us into that other level.”
No player illustrates how much UConn’s roster has changed over the last three years than Griffin. As a freshman on a Crystal Dangerfield and Megan Walker-led team, Griffin was one of the Huskies’ only options on the bench and played major minutes as a result. Now a junior, she’s one of five reserves battling for playing time.
At least, she will be. Griffin has missed most of the preseason with a back injury followed by a high ankle sprain, the latter of which will keep her out in Sunday’s season opener against Arkansas.
Griffin’s athleticism is second-to-none and she’s capable of huge games both in terms of scoring and on the glass. While she always brings energy to the floor, Griffin hasn’t proven that she can be productive on a consistent basis. Still, she’ll be a valuable player for the Huskies once she gets healthy.
Though Paige Bueckers drew most of the attention as a freshman sensation last year, Edwards had a strong first season with the Huskies as well. With her strength, physicality and aggressiveness, she proved to be the perfect complement in the post to the finesse-oriented Nelson-Ododa.
Edwards started six games — including the last four games in the NCAA Tournament after Nika Mühl went down with an ankle injury — and won Big East Sixth Woman of the Year. She spent the summer playing with the Canadian national team at both the AmeriCup and Olympics, which not only gave her first-hand professional experience but also allowed her to play on the wing instead of in the lane.
For as well as Edwards played last season, the next step in her game will come when she can be a more versatile and well-rounded player rather than just a banger in the low post. We didn’t see much from her outside the paint in the exhibition but even if she’s not at that level yet, Edwards will still be a force for the Huskies this season.
While McLean had her moments as a freshman, her playing time progressively decreased as the year went on and by the postseason, she only saw action in the fourth quarter of blowouts. Her athleticism and energy is impressive but there were too many times where she’d lose focus or her effort level would drop off.
McLean has proven she’s capable of making an impact with the Huskies but with so many players ahead of her on the depth chart, it’ll likely be hard for her to find meaningful minutes this season.
Gabriel was the last one off the bench in UConn’s exhibition but did more than McLean and Amari DeBerry in her limited minutes. Gabriel scored six points on 3-of-3 shooting and most importantly, looked far more comfortable on the floor. Auriemma had been complimentary of the sophomore during Big East Media Day in October, too.
“I think the player of the week this past week was Piath,” he said. “Once Piath gets over the things from her surgery, she’s going to help us. I mean, she don’t know it, but I know it.”
“She’s 6-, she runs, she’s got great feet and she wants to be good,” he added later. “She’s starting to get it, starting to understand it. So, she’s nowhere near 100 percent but as she gets better every week and every month from that surgery, she’s gonna help us a lot.”
It’s clear Gabriel has the physical tools and work ethic to succeed. If she can develop a skillset to match, she could prove to be a real find for the Huskies. It seems unlikely that’ll happen this year, though.
Auriemma has referred to DeBerry as “the best-skilled big kid we’ve had in a long time,” but the freshman is still struggling with the pace of play at the college level. That’s a difficult adjustment for most players but especially for bigs. If she can get up to speed, DeBerry could be an interesting piece for this UConn team.
“I think climate change moves faster than she does sometimes. So once we get Amari going — which the last couple of days, I’ve seen the change — that kid is skilled as hell,” Auriemma said in October.