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UConn WBB Weekly: Can the Huskies defense improve enough by March?

UConn’s defense isn’t good enough to win a championship right now but there’s still time for that to change.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Connecticut at Tennessee Randy Sartin-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.

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From The UConn Blog and Storrs Central:

News/general coverage

Arkansas coverage

DePaul coverage

St. John’s coverage

Last week’s Weekly:

Elsewhere

Quick headlines

  • Paige Bueckers earned her sixth Big East Freshman of the Week award after averaging 24.5 points, 7.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds in two games against Arkansas and DePaul. Christyn Williams made the league’s honor roll with 22.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in her last two games.
  • Bueckers was one of 10 players selected to the Lieberman Award Top 10 list. The award goes to the nation’s top point guard each year. Williams also made the Meyers Drysdale Award Top 10, which goes to the best shooting guard in the nation.
  • The honors continued to roll in for Bueckers this week as she was named to the Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 along with fellow teammate Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
  • Nelson-Ododa also made the Naismith Defense Player of the Year watchlist, which is down to 15 players.
  • UConn signee Azzi Fudd is a one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Girls High School Player of the Year Award. She was previously a finalist for the award two years ago.

Can UConn’s defense improve enough by March?

Note: This was written before UConn’s win over St. John’s.

Numbers can be deceiving. By looking at just the stats, UConn women’s basketball’s defense has one of the best defenses in the country. The Huskies allow just 53.5 points per game — 11th-best nationally — and 72.0 points per 100 possessions — fifth-best. If you’re a fan of advanced metrics, Her Hoops Stats’ Defensive Rating gives UConn the top mark in the country.

In this case, numbers do lie, though. Which is what Geno Auriemma has been saying all season long.

“We’re not a really good defensive team,” he said after the team’s win over Xavier in December. “I’m not looking at the score. I mean I could care less what the score is.”

The Huskies’ defense shortcomings were finally laid bare on national television when No. 19 Arkansas dropped 90 points — the most UConn has allowed in regulation since 2001. While some of that can be attributed to a hot shooting night from the Razorbacks (they hit 56.5 percent from three and 51.6 percent overall), the Huskies didn’t do a whole lot to slow them down.

“We had a real tough matchup the other day because of how well Arkansas shot the ball,” Auriemma said. “Having said that, when you give someone that many uncontested shots, it’s as much a credit to them that they made them as it is that you didn’t work really, really hard to get to those shots.”

UConn will need to use that dreadful performance as a wake-up call, something it can learn from. With just over a month left in the regular season, the Huskies defense needs to improve and improve quickly, otherwise they won’t be hoisting any trophies at the end of the year.

“Right now, our defense is not anywhere near where it needs to be for us to be a championship kind of team,” Auriemma said. “We’re certainly nowhere near there and that’s obviously something we’re going to have to improve on tremendously.”

So how might they make those changes and what might they look like?

“You just spend whatever time you do get and and some of it won’t get fixed. That’s the reality of it. Some it just won’t get fixed,” Auriemma said. “Some years you have the ability to have an elite defensive team and some years you don’t and no amount of practice is going to make that better. So what we can do is be a little bit smarter about how we guard people.”

“Some technique stuff will get fixed,” he added later. “But some years your defense is just okay and this might be one of those years.”

UConn could also be aided by the improvement of individual players. Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s blocks are down this season with just 2.0 blocks per game compared to 3.1 last year. Mir McLean has played well when she’s on the court but only sees 8.4 minutes per game.

Paige Bueckers, though she nabs 2.5 steals per game, hasn’t proven to be a shutdown one-on-one defender. The same goes for Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams as well. Aubrey Griffin, who made her mark on the defensive end as a freshman, hasn’t impressed Auriemma yet this season.

“Aubrey can (be an important piece of UConn’s defense) but to be honest with you, we really didn’t get a great defensive effort from anybody including Aubrey in the in the Arkansas game,” he said. “You would think that with her length and her athletic ability that she ought to be able to do a much better job and I think that was a real eye opener for for her.”

The lack of a true shutdown defender has already burned the Huskies twice. Seton Hall’s Lauren Park-Lane went off for 29 against UConn in December while Arkansas’ Chelsea Dungee dropped 37 points.

That type of defensive stopper is unlikely to magically appear for the Huskies this season, but they could take notes from their performance against Villanova’s Maddie Siegrist, the Big East’s leading scorer. Back in December, UConn held her to 15 points on 6-22 shooting — the fewest points she’s scored and the only time she’s shot under 45 percent this season.

The Huskies probably don’t need an elite defense to have a shot at banner No. 12 this year. While that would obviously help, that’s asking for a lot at this point in the season. Instead, UConn just needs to start by making life more difficult for opposing teams on the defense end by not allowing open shots or easy looks.

In that case, teams would probably need to make a lot of threes and shoot over 50 percent, except it would face a much stiffer challenge than Arkansas did. That also means UConn will be even more reliant on its offense, though it showed it can score points in bunches in the loss to the Razorbacks even with Nelson-Ododa and Williams having off-nights.

This isn’t like past years where the Huskies have been clear favorites for the national title with an offense firing on all cylinders and a suffocating defense. There are no clear favorites in college basketball this season, and if UConn can make the necessary improvements over the next six weeks, it’ll have just as good of a chance as anyone to come out on top.


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AP Poll

  1. Louisville (—)
  2. South Carolina (+2)
  3. UConn (—)
  4. NC State (-2)
  5. UCLA (—)

Notables:

  • UConn holds at No. 3 despite its loss to Arkansas.
  • Arkansas only moves up three spots to No. 16.
  • DePaul drops to No. 20 from No. 17.
  • Tennessee moved up two spots to No. 18.