UConn women’s basketball limped into the holiday break with a 6-3 record — the first time the Huskies have suffered three losses before the new year since the 2004-05 season — following a 69-64 loss to Louisville on Sunday.
The struggles are not a surprise, since injuries have hammered UConn’s roster. They’ve been without Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd, Aubrey Griffin, and Nika Mühl. The Huskies only had three healthy guards in the two most recent losses.
UConn’s problems go deeper than injuries, though. The team wasn’t playing well before Bueckers went down but she was covering up a lot of warts. Now, those issues have come to the surface and the Huskies don’t have many answers.
Here’s what we’ve learned through the first nine games:
UConn will benefit from these struggles
Daniel Connolly: UConn still searching for its identity as a team, and the players are trying to figure out their new roles. Realistically, three games is not enough for either of those two things to happen. This is a process and progress will more likely come in small increments.
Ultimately, the Huskies will be a better team from all this and Caroline Ducharme’s emergence is the perfect example of why. When Geno Auriemma had a (mostly) healthy roster at his disposal, the freshman struggled to see the court.
But once Fudd, then Bueckers and Mühl, went down, she was one of three healthy guards left and had no choice but to step up. So far, Ducharme has answered the bell with at least 14 points in three of the last four games — including a game-high 24 on Sunday versus Louisville. She’s also been strong on the glass and capable on the defensive end as well.
Without all the injuries, Ducharme wouldn’t be playing upwards of 30 minutes each night and would have the ball in her hands far less. She’s made the most of the opportunity presented to her.
As long as Auriemma is at the helm, there’s plenty of reason to believe the rest of the team will come along as well.
Megan Gauer: Without Bueckers on the court, the Huskies are going to play some closer games against top-25 opponents. While that has so far not resulted in UConn falling to Georgia Tech or Louisville, playing in tight games throughout the season will only benefit the Huskies in the long run.
In pretty much every Final Four loss since 2016, you can point to the Huskies’ inability to close out games as a reason for their failure to reach the championship. Often, those UConn teams weren’t tested much in the regular season. That won’t be the case for this team.
They’ll have to continue to figure out how to finish out games without being able to look to Bueckers, which should make them even more prepared once they can turn to her again.
...and the Christmas break will help, too
Connolly: On Friday, Evina Westbrook mentioned that it feels like the season is already in February or March — not December. It’s been a tough first semester for the Huskies, both with the injuries, losses and also because of the schedule of games. Almost half the teams in the country have played more contests than UConn, who has played nine.
Auriemma often says that games, not practice, are the best way for a team to develop. That would help explain why the Huskies are still struggling so much without Bueckers despite being two weeks removed from the sophomore’s knee injury.
Now, they’ll get a different kind of break. The team will travel home for Christmas — including Dorka Juhász and Nika Mühl — and while they’re away, Auriemma doesn’t want them to worry about anything other than spending time with family and relaxing.
“For me, it’s the same message every year: Get away from school — which they love — get away from basketball — which is necessary,” he said. “Put everything aside. It’ll still be here when you get back.”
Players like Aaliyah Edwards and Christyn Williams should benefit in particular. Both players seem to be in their own heads and the time away from the court could be just what they need to hit the reset button.
The seniors haven’t done enough
Megan: What’s been most disappointing from the seniors is the lack of consistency. We’ve seen flashes of greatness from Williams, Evina Westbrook, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa this season, but we’ve also seen plenty of games where they have a minimal impact.
For this team to win a national championship — even with Bueckers back — UConn needs to be able to count on its seniors to deliver. Not to single Williams out, but we haven’t seen the same player that excelled in the 2021 postseason to this point in the season. If she can get back to that level of production on both ends of the floor, it would help this team take a big step forward.
Connolly: UConn has three experienced seniors in Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook, and Williams, yet the team’s two best players over the last two weeks have been a transfer in Dorka Juhász and a freshman in Ducharme. None of the older players have consistently stepped up since the injuries hit which — as Megan mentioned — is especially disappointing considering how well all three have played at times.
Nelson-Ododa has been the most consistent, Westbrook’s peaks have been the highest while Williams is in a really bad slump. If the Huskies are going to capitalize on the time without Bueckers, the seniors need to figure it out once they get back from Christmas.
The half-court offense has been a mess
Connolly: When UConn is getting out in transition, it can pile on points quickly. But when the Huskies are running their half-court offense, we see long scoring droughts. This was a problem before Bueckers got hurt, though the loss of the team’s best scorer and playmaker obviously makes it even worse.
One of the main culprits is UConn’s poor outside shooting. Louisville head coach Jeff Walz explained after Sunday’s game that his team packed the paint since he didn’t think the Huskies had the ability to spread the floor with their shooting and he was right. With the two biggest threats from beyond the arc in Bueckers and Fudd sidelined, and Ducharme, Westbrook and Williams all hitting 31.0 percent or less from three, UConn is a one-dimensional offense.
Megan: In addition to the poor three-point shooting, UConn has struggled with turnovers in the half-court. Currently, the Huskies’ assist to turnover ratio is the lowest it has been since at least the 2009-2010 season. While the issue has been exasperated by the absence of Bueckers, who led the team in assists and does an excellent job of taking care of the ball, and Mühl, turnovers were a problem prior to her injury.
Even with Bueckers on the floor, we haven’t seen a lot of the pretty ball movement we’re accustomed to from UConn teams, and errant passes — often unforced by the Huskies’ opponents, as was the case Sunday — have been a reoccurring problem as well.
The defense has been good (for the most part)
Megan: Excluding the season opener against Arkansas, UConn is allowing approximately 59 points per game. The only concerning defensive performance to point to is Charisma Osborne’s 26 points for UCLA but even then, Osborne hit some tough shots from deep and is one of the best guards in the country. The Huskies are solid on the defensive end.
One area that could use some improvement is UConn’s performance on the defensive glass. While the Huskies have improved from an abysmal day on the boards against South Carolina, they’re still allowing their opponents to collect about 30 percent of their own misses. Cleaning that up would limit second-chance opportunities and help offset some of this team’s offensive woes.
Offensive rebounding is improving
Megan: Despite struggling some on the defensive glass, UConn has made big strides on the other end of the court. After a quiet start to the season on the offensive boards, the Huskies grabbed over 40 percent of their own misses against Louisville on Sunday — a team that ranked in the top 5 for defensive rebounding rate prior to the game.
Dorka Juhász can be a difference-maker
Connolly: Juhász looked like an All-American in UConn’s exhibition win over Fort Hays State with 15 points and eight rebounds, but disappeared once the regular season began. Over her first seven games, she totaled just 20 points and 28 rebounds. The last two times out, Juhász has combined for 31 points and 24 rebounds.
With the Huskies struggling to consistently hit outside shots, they need their frontcourt to grab more offensive rebounds and take on a larger scoring load. So far, Juhász has done so and should be even more impactful once the team starts to get healthy. She looks every bit the two-time All-Big Ten player that she was at Ohio State.
End game management needs work
Megan: Aside from the win over USF, UConn has not closed out close games well this season. While it has been a more frequent problem in Bueckers’ absence, it started with the total fourth-quarter collapse against South Carolina in which the Huskies scored just three points in the final ten minutes.
UConn also fell apart in the final stretch at Georgia Tech when it went cold and scored just five points in the fourth quarter and also did so — to a lesser extent — in the Louisville game. Even against UCLA, the Huskies had a double-digit lead but almost lost in down the stretch by struggling at the free-throw line.
Improving their end game execution will be critical for March, but getting the experience with these situations now — even if they haven’t been successful — should help this team be better prepared for the late-round tournament games.
Connolly: UConn’s three defeats have all involved fourth-quarter swoons. While there are plenty of reasons the Huskies lost those games, they were close for the first 30 minutes before falling apart in the end. That’s the No. 1 problem for UConn to fix once it gets back from the Christmas break.