How to watch
When: Feb. 3, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT
Radio: UConn Sports Network (97.9 ESPN and affiliates)
St. John’s Red Storm
Record: 5-9 (2-7 Big East)
Preseason poll: 4th
Location: Queens, NY
Head coach: Joe Tartamella (ninth season)
UConn women’s basketball’s freshmen have played a critical role this season. Paige Bueckers has been the star, leading the team in per-game scoring (18.5), assists (5.7), steals (2.5), and minutes (35.2) as well as in three-point percentage (54.8).
She isn’t the only one, though. Aaliyah Edwards has established herself as a solid partner with Olivia Nelson-Ododa in the post, tallying 8.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 16.8 minutes per game.
Nika Muhl is steadily becoming an important piece of the rotation and the main backcourt option off the bench, while Mir McLean has impressed in limited playing time as an athletic, energetic presence in the paint.
When the Huskies’ upperclassmen struggled against Arkansas, head coach Geno Auriemma rolled with a lineup of four freshmen which help get the team back into the game.
To this point in the season, there isn’t much more the coach can ask from them.
“I’ve actually been thrilled with our younger players,” Auriemma said. “I think they’ve given us some of the best minutes that we’ve had this year. So I’m gonna continue to play them as much as I can.”
The freshmen have been far from perfect, though. Edwards fouls far too much (she leads the team in total fouls and averages 6.1 per 40 minutes), Muhl struggles with turnovers (4.7 turnovers per 40), and McLean is still on the fringes of the rotation. But as long as he sees progress, those are things Auriemma is willing to live with.
“Even the mistakes they make, they’re young, freshmen mistakes,” he said. “But they’re not mistakes of not working hard or they’re not extending themselves.”
Though Auriemma joked that “I’ve been hitting my head against the wall every day since September 1” because of this team, he doesn’t place any fault at the feet of the freshmen. Their production level isn’t a concern to him. That should be the responsibility of upperclassmen like Nelson-Ododa, Evina Westbrook, Christyn Williams, and also Bueckers, who doesn’t fall into the same category as her classmates.
As long as Edwards, McLean, and Muhl keep doing what they’re doing, they’ll keep their head coach happy.
“They’re improving every day. They still struggle with things, obviously,” Auriemma said. “But they’re also in a position where they can overcome some of their mistakes because they work so hard at it. They just really work hard at it and their energy level is really high. That’s what I like most about it really is their energy level. You can feel it when they’re in the game.”
Scouting St. John’s
The Red Storm are comfortably mediocre with an offense that scores 68.9 points per game and a defense that allows 69.3 points per game. They shoot the ball well, ranking in the top 70 nationally in field goal, 3-point, and free throw percentage.
St. John’s struggles to hold onto the ball, though. The Red Storm turn the ball over on 20 percent of their possessions, which hamstrings the offense’s efficiency and shooting ability. They’re also a middle of the pack team on the offensive glass, grabbing just 10.4 of their own misses a game.
Unlike most other teams in the Big East, St. John’s actually has some size to contend with UConn. Five of seven players who see at least 15.0 minutes per game for the Red Storm are six feet or taller, including Raven Farley (6-foot-4) and Rayven Peeples (6-foot-3). With that size, St. John’s ranks 13th in the country with 5.7 blocks per game.
Leilani Correa leads the team with 20.0 points per game while Qadashah Hoppie scores 18.0 ppg. Unique Drake runs the point with 3.3 assists per game while Kadaja Bailey is the top rebounder at 6.6 per game.
UConn leads the all-time series 41-17 and has won 31 of the last 32 meetings. The two teams last faced off during the 2018 Paradise Jam in the US Virgin Islands, where the Huskies earned a narrow 65-55 victory.
By the numbers
13 — This will be UConn’s 13th game, the minimum number required for a team to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament this season.
14/41 — St. John’s has a pair of identical twins on its roster in sophomores Emma and Sophia Nolan. Not only are they legitimately identical, they both wear the same two digits: Sophia is No. 14 while Emma is No. 41. There shouldn’t be much confusion though since Emma plays 16.9 minutes per game while Sophia only sees 3.7.
12 — The Huskies added two assists to Paige Bueckers’ total from the team’s win over DePaul after the scorekeeper failed to give her credit for a pair of dimes in the fourth quarter. That means she finished with 12 on the day, which ties her with Pam Webber for the most by a UConn freshman in a single game. Webber accomplished the feat back on Nov. 29, 1991 against LA Tech.
What to watch for
UConn’s press defense
The Huskies have often deployed a half-court trap against weaker teams to force turnovers and help themselves get out in transition. With St. John’s turnover problems, UConn will want to do as much as it can to disrupt the Red Storm’s offense and prevent them from getting into a half-court offense, especially since they can hit shots when they get them. Utilizing the trap defense would help the Huskies accomplish both those goals on Wednesday.
Geno Auriemma has criticized his team for starting slow all season long, a problem that continued against DePaul. The Huskies trailed 22-18 after the first quarter but outscored the Blue Demons 82-55 the rest of the game.
“I don’t like the way we start off games at all. I don’t know what it is,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know whether I’m gonna have to change what I’m doing or whatever but I don’t think we start off the game in an aggressive type of mindset. We’re more of wait and see.”
With two days off between the DePaul and St. John’s games, UConn hasn’t gotten much practice time in recently which means Auriemma can’t totally overhaul anything right now. But if he wants to reverse the Huskies’ habit of starting slow, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him try to shake things up, whether that be by changing the starting lineup, using a quick hook, or even adjusting the team’s pregame routine.