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UConn WBB Weekly: How the Huskies have changed since the start of the season

Comparing our takeaways after UConn’s first five games to where the team is now.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Connecticut at St. John’s Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the UConn WBB Weekly, a recap of everything that happened in the world of UConn women’s basketball over the past week.

The Weekly is a newsletter! Subscribe to get it in your inbox every Thursday at 7 a.m. before it hits the site.

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From The UConn Blog and Storrs Central:

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Last week’s Weekly:

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In the news

  • The Big East Tournament announced its schedule and broadcast information. UConn will (likely) play at noon on Saturday, March 6, at 3 p.m. on March 7, and at 8 p.m. on March 8.
  • The dates for the NCAA Tournament are also out. The first two rounds will be held March 21-24 and the regionals on March 27-30. The national semifinal will be on Friday, April 2 with the national title game on Sunday, April 4.
  • Christyn Williams made the Big East’s weekly honor roll.

What we’ve learned about UConn since the start of the season

UConn women’s basketball will close out the regular season this weekend with three games in five days ahead of the Big East Tournament, which kicks off on Friday, March 5. The Huskies began the season way back on Dec. 12 and played five games in 11 days to start out.

After UConn finished that stretch with a 90-52 win at Villanova, Megan Gauer and I broke down what we learned about the Huskies through their first five games. Now that March is on the doorstep, we decided to look back to December to see what’s changed (and what hasn’t) for UConn over the last two and a half months.

Takeaway: Paige Bueckers — Confirmed good

Quote of note from the story: “Even with all the hype around her before the season, Paige Bueckers has been better than advertised...At her best, Bueckers is the most impactful player on the floor, capable of making highlight-reel players. At her worst, she’s still pretty good.”

Bueckers’ hot start proved to be just a preview of things to come. The freshman finally started to listen to Geno Auriemma’s pleas for her to shoot the ball more after UConn’s loss to Arkansas and has only gotten better since. Before that game, Bueckers shot more than five 3-pointers just twice in 10 games. Since then, she’s taken at least five shots from beyond the arc in all but one of her last eight games and has only failed to reach 19 points once — including three straight games with 30+ points.

Bueckers has also shown her knack for performing in clutch moments by hitting a game-clinching three against Tennessee and scoring the 24 of the Huskies’ 30 total points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime in all three games decided by single digits.

Back in December, we likely underestimated just how dominant Bueckers would be. Not only is she the best freshman in the country, but she’ll also likely be on the shortlist for National Player of the Year.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Connecticut at St. John’s Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Other freshmen impressing, too

Quote of note: “Even without Bueckers, UConn’s freshmen have been impressive...Bueckers, Edwards, McLean, and Muhl should all play big roles for the Huskies this season, and, looking forward, they’ll be one heck of a core for Geno Auriemma to build around over the next four years.”

Bueckers has become an indispensable piece for UConn, playing at least 30 minutes in every game, while Edwards and Mühl have both become key cogs in the rotation as well. Mühl’s emergence has been particularly notable since December, considering she missed three games with a foot injury and didn’t earn consistent minutes until after Tennessee, a game she didn’t play in.

McLean has trended in the opposite direction. She saw limited action before the fourth quarter early in the season and even had a stretch where she played at least 10 minutes in five of seven games from Jan. 9 to Feb. 3 but has fallen out of favor since. McLean didn‘t play against South Carolina (her only DNP of the season) and has mostly been relegated to the end of the bench.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Connecticut at St. John’s Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Juniors rising

Quote of note: “It took a couple of games for Williams and Nelson-Ododa to hit their strides, but UConn’s two juniors have looked great in the past few games...Aside from the opener, Williams has been good night in and night out — UConn needs her to be great.”

While both Nelson-Ododa and Williams have played well at times, neither has done so consistently. Nelson-Ododa reached double-digit scoring in each of her first eight games but has only hit that mark six times in her last 11.

Williams, meanwhile, has gone scoreless twice this season and struggled against South Carolina with just six points. She seems to have turned a corner recently, with Auriemma declaring her performance against St. John’s to be “the best game she’s played this year,” which she followed up with 21 and 22 point nights.

The final line of our December story still rings true, though: UConn needs Williams to be great. While the Huskies have proven they can win without her, that’s not something they’ll want to test in March. If Williams can keep up her current form, UConn won’t just be a contender for the national title — it’ll be the favorite.

NCAA Womens Basketball: St. John’s at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Sophomore slump?

Quote of note: “So far, it feels like Griffin and Makurat haven’t played at the level they were at towards the end of last season. Makurat in particular seems to be struggling on the offensive end. She has done a nice job distributing the ball but hasn’t created much for herself on offense and can’t find the basket on her outside shots.”

On Dec. 29 against DePaul, Griffin played just six minutes due to back spasms. While it’s never been revealed how long she had been dealing with back issues, that game proved to be a turning point in the sophomore’s season.

From then on, Griffin has played at least 20 minutes in all but two games (including five starts) and, while she’s only reached double-digits rebounds once and hasn’t cracked the 20-point mark, she’s been far more consistent than she was a year ago.

As for Makurat, her second season in Storrs has been a massive disappointment so far. She’s sat out more than half the season with a lower right leg injury and still doesn’t have a timetable to return. Even when she was healthy, Makurat couldn’t get her shot to fall and essentially stopped shooting entirely before being sidelined by the injury with one attempt from the floor in her last 36 minutes of play.

The one stat that underlines Makurat’s struggles best this season? She hasn’t taken a single free throw, meaning she never put herself in a position on the floor where she could be fouled.

There’s still plenty of time for Makurat to salvage her season, though. Auriemma’s hoping she’ll be back in time for the Big East Tournament and even if that doesn’t happen, she’ll still have three more weeks to heal before the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Georgetown at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Defense needs work

Quote of note: “The Huskies haven’t faced a team that can hurt them from all parts of the floor yet but they’ve struggled to contain some of the better players they’ve faced in the Big East...While we’ve seen good spurts of defense from this team, teams with multiple elite level players on the floor might give the Huskies more than they can handle.”

Megan’s final line proved to be prophetic after Arkansas lit up UConn’s defense for 97 points — the most allowed by the Huskies in regulation in nearly 20 years. They also had no answer for Chelsea Dungee, who finished with 37 points.

That game proved to be this season’s low point for the defense. Since then, UConn has steadily progressed by forcing opposing teams to settle for bad shots instead of just hoping for misses.

Over the last four games, the Huskies’ defense hasn’t allowed a single opponent to reach the 50-point mark and they’ve only allowed 32 points in each of their last two games — tied for the second-fewest they’ve given up this year. While none of those teams have been offensive juggernauts, UConn has still shown improvement.

In the Huskies’ first meeting with Seton Hall, the Pirates scored 65 points (the most UConn allowed before Arkansas) while Lauren Park-Lane went off for 24 points. In the second meeting, Seton Hall only managed 49 points — despite the addition of leading scorer Andra Espinoza-Hunter since the initial matchup — as Park-Lane went just 1-12 from the floor for five points.

The progression was even more visible against St. John’s, whom the Huskies played twice in 14 days. On Feb. 3, the Red Storm made exactly 50 percent from the field while Leilani Correa dropped 33 points. Exactly two weeks later, St. John’s made 29.2 percent of its shots while Correa scored just two points on 1-10 shooting.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Connecticut at St. John’s Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Two big tests on the way

Quote of note: “UConn didn’t have any trouble with its first five opponents...After all we’ve learned about the Huskies through five games, we’ll get a chance to see what they’re really made of over the next two games (against DePaul and Baylor).”

UConn made quick work of DePaul and never played Baylor after Bears head coach Kim Mulkey tested positive for COVID. The Huskies did eventually get a chance to prove their mettle with close wins over then-No. 25 Tennessee and No. 1 South Carolina, while their loss to then-No. 19 Arkansas ultimately proved to be an important wake-up call for the team.


Best of social media

Definitely No. 4 as well:

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Great feature on Batouly Camara’s WAKE organization:

Quotables

Paige’s ankle seems fine:

AP Poll

  1. UConn (—)
  2. NC State (+2)
  3. Texas A&M (+2)
  4. Stanford (+2)
  5. South Carolina (-3)

Notables:

  • South Carolina lost on the road to No. 21 Tennessee, hence the slide.
  • Louisville dropped out of the top five after falling on the road to Florida State.
  • Tennessee only moved up one spot to No. 20 in part because it also lost to Georgia.
  • Arkansas is up to No. 16.
  • DePaul lost to Creighton and fell all the way to No. 24.