How to watch
When: Feb. 17, 6:00 p.m.
Where: Queens, NY
Radio: UConn Sports Network (97.9 ESPN and affiliates)
St. John’s Red Storm
Record: 6-11 (3-8 Big East)
Location: Queens, NY
Head coach: Joe Tartamella (ninth season)
UConn women’s basketball is 17 games into the season and Geno Auriemma still can’t get used to playing in front of empty arenas. The coach relayed a discussion he had with a friend about how it’s especially difficult to get his players to play with energy this season and wondered aloud if everyone else is dealing with a similar problem.
“I said, ‘Is it me or is everybody in the country having a hard time getting their players to play at a certain energy level, intensity level, awareness level? Is it just me? Am I reading too much into this or my expecting too much out of this?’ And [his friend] said, ‘Listen, this idea of nobody understands this environment that you guys are trying to play in, it’s real and the impact that is having is real, the effect that it has on players, coaches — it’s real.”
The Huskies have started slow in practically every game this season and seem immune from any fixes. With such a young, inexperienced team, Auriemma can’t help but think the lack of fans plays a part.
“It’s obvious. You watch it, you feel it. You’re on the sidelines and you feel it. You’re in the locker room at halftime and you feel the deadness of it,” he said. “You’re trying so hard to change it, to make it what you remember it to be and it’s been a big struggle for every coach, for every player.”
Still, no matter what’s happening in the world or who’s on the team, UConn is still expected to compete for the national championship every single season. Those aren’t just external pressures either — that’s something Auriemma strives for himself.
“It’s always been my goal to make sure that every year, we’re in the conversation and we’re in contention and that we have a chance, that we have an opportunity to compete for a national championship. Some years we have a better chance than others,” he said.
This year and everything that’s come with it made Auriemma briefly reconsider those expectations. Only briefly, though
“What are our realistic expectations? What are the standards that this program stands for? Maybe we realized this year, those are two different things that we’re going to try to live up to the standards that we have here but we may have to have expectations that are a little bit different,” he said. “And just as soon as that comes out of my mouth, my other side of my brain slaps the other side and says, ‘What are you talking about? The expectation is the same no matter what.”
While Auriemma remains inflexible on the program’s standards and expectations, he realized he needed to adjust his coaching style for this particular team. While the seven freshmen play a part in that shift, Auriemma also understands that the pandemic has put a mental strain on players that never existed before.
“So what makes this season different? Is it COVID? Yeah. Is it because they’re young? Yeah. Is it because they’re young and COVID? Yeah,” he said. “If they were older, would we handle COVID better? I don’t know. I don’t know. But I know for me, the coaching is different.”
Though Auriemma didn’t specifically explain what he’s doing differently, it seems to be working. UConn is currently the No. 1 team in the country and would be the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended on Monday. The Huskies have also made tangible strides on defense since getting torched by Arkansas and proved their mettle by beating then-No. 1 South Carolina last Monday.
If anything, the lack of fans is really the only departure from the norm for UConn this season. Other than that, the results have more or less been business as usual.
Anna Makurat has missed the last eight games with a lower right leg injury and remains out indefinitely, though there could be an update on her status later this week.
“She’s trying to get her rehab done every day. She’s spending some time getting some shots up when she can. She’s been keeping her conditioning up and getting in the weight room a lot,” Auriemma said. “Just waiting on time and hopefully we’ll find out this week at some point how close we are.”
Two weeks ago, UConn earned a 94-62 win over St. John’s. Christyn Williams and Aubrey Griffin both sat out with injuries which opened the door for the freshmen to score 75 combined points. Four different freshmen set new career highs in the process, including 32 points from Paige Bueckers.
On the other side, Leilani Correa scored 33 of St. John’s 62 points.
By the numbers
246 — This is UConn’s 246th week atop the AP Poll.
5 — The Huskies are in the midst of a five-game road trip, which is the longest for the team since Feb. 9-19, 1980. All five of those road games came against teams in New England.
1 — Bueckers won Big East Player and Rookie of the Week on Monday, the second consecutive week she’s taken home both awards. By doing so, she became the first player in conference and UConn history to sweep the honors multiple times.
What to watch for
Huskies rest up
UConn didn’t look great in its last two games against Seton Hall and Georgetown, the tail end of a stretch of five games in 10 days. The Huskies were visibly rundown and clearly needed a break from playing. UConn got the weekend off and will go four days between games — its longest gap without playing in three weeks — which should help the players nurse their various injuries. On Wednesday, we’ll see just how much that rest benefitted the Huskies.
In the two teams’ last meeting, UConn forced 27 giveaways which led to 37 points down at the other end. St. John’s ranks in the bottom third of the nation in turnover rate, so look for the Huskies to exploit that weakness once again. It’s especially important for UConn to take the ball away considering the Red Storm shot 50.0 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from three, which shows they can find the basketball when they aren’t coughing up possessions.
Which version of Williams shows up?
Williams’ recent performances have been hit or miss with an 18-point effort at Marquette and a 19-point night at Georgetown sandwiching a six-point game against South Carolina and a scoreless line against Seton Hall. We’ll find out tonight if this inconsistency continues or if the short break helped her rediscover her previously lost confidence.