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UConn hoping recent progress pays off against South Carolina

Plus updates on the Huskies’ walking wounded and Geno Auriemma’s Super Bowl pick.

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

Since UConn women’s basketball’s loss to Arkansas, the team has clearly made adjustments. Some of those changes are easier to notice, like Paige Bueckers’ ascension to a new level, or the defensive improvement. Others are less perceptible.

“That Arkansas game, we were not in a good place, team-wise but [also] individually,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “I think we had guys that were really struggling with their games. We were struggling to find the identity on the court. I think that game showed us a lot of what was missing.”

“Since then, I think there’s been a different approach by certain individuals on the team and there’s been a different approach by the team as a whole,” he added later. “It does show up in these games that we played and hopefully it’ll continue to.”

Much of those issues were rooted in UConn’s lack of game action. The Huskies’ start to the year was delayed after the program paused team activities due to a positive COVID test. Once they got going, they played a furious stretch of five games in 11 days.

After that, UConn went through another dry spell, playing just twice in 27 days because of a multitude of issues outside the team’s control. By the time the Huskies traveled to Arkansas, they had only played five games in the previous month.

“You can’t underestimate this enough: You need a bunch of games, two, three games a week, for a stretch of time to feel like you’re in game mode — I don’t care how much you practice — and we weren’t.”

UConn has gotten into a somewhat regular schedule over the last three weeks, with seven games in that stretch. For the first time this season, the Huskies have been in game mode for an extended period of time, which would help partially explain the team’s better play recently.

Another factor in the Huskies’ improvement since the Arkansas loss is the emergence of freshman point guard Nika Muhl. Though she played 25 minutes and contributed eight points, Muhl has really found her stride in the last week. She’s started back-to-back games, played at least 35 minutes in each contest, and set a new career-high in at least one category in both performances.

Muhl’s impact on each end of the floor was particularly evident in UConn’s win at Marquette. Her passing ability helped the Huskies’ offense become more fluid while Auriemma credited her with improving the team’s communication on defense.

The fact that it took Muhl this long to earn a spot in the rotation wasn’t about talent or ability — those were evident early in the season. Instead, the freshman needed to change her attitude in order to maximize those abilities.

“Leading up to the Tennessee game, we had some issues with Nika. Issues related to how she wants to play and the things that she thinks are okay. We didn’t agree on those things,” Auriemma said. “Now, obviously, she agrees with me so she’s playing more and she’s actually a very key, integral part of what we’re doing right now. That’s one reason, maybe, why we are playing at a little bit higher level because of what she brings at both ends of the floor.”

Muhl isn’t the only freshman playing a crucial role for the Huskies, either. Bueckers runs the show, leading the team in minutes played along with points and assists per game, while Aaliyah Edwards has become a key cog in the post.

Though all three have been on the court in some capacity as UConn players for nearly five months, they’re still mostly inexperienced. The Huskies have only played 14 games, a mark they reached on Jan. 11 last season. To compound matters, only three of those opponents have been ranked — none of which were in the top 10.

“They shouldn’t think of themselves as freshmen mentally but unfortunately, they haven’t been in enough games to be considered anything other than that,” Auriemma said. “They have a lot of experience practicing but they don’t have a lot of experience playing games.”

That means Monday’s showdown with South Carolina will not only be an important test for UConn as a team, it’ll be a crucial learning experience for the Huskies’ freshmen as well.

“Games like tomorrow night are huge for them regardless,” Auriemma said. “If we win and play great, it’s a huge confidence builder for them, knowing that they can do that. If we play great and don’t win, that’s still something that they can build on. The big games are coming up in March and this is kind of a preview of what those games may be like.”

UConn undoubtedly looks like a different team than the one that lost to Arkansas but it’s fair to question whether or not that progress is real or just a product of playing outmatched Big East opponents. Against South Carolina, the Huskies will answer that question, one way or another.

Injury updates

UConn is dealing with a host of injuries and ailments at the moment.

Paige Bueckers is “still struggling” with the ankle injury she sustained at Tennessee while Nika Muhl’s ankle and Evina Westbrook’s knees are both “not 100 percent,” according to Auriemma.

Meanwhile, Christyn Williams is dealing with a sprained ankle that forced her to sit out against St. John’s while Aubrey Griffin essentially missed UConn’s last two games after knocking knees with a teammate in practice (she tried to go against the Red Storm but played less than two minutes before asking to come out).

“[Griffin] said she felt better at Marquette but I didn’t want to rush it back,” Auriemma said. He didn’t say whether or not she’ll play on Monday.

Aaliyah Edwards took a shot to the face against Marquette and was seen with a bloody mouth on the sideline. Luckily, it looked worse than it actually was.

“I’m good. Nothing major, no fracture anything,” she said. “I just got hit in the mouth pretty good but I’m getting ready for tomorrow.”

There’s still no further update on Anna Makurat either, who sat out the last five games with a lower right leg issue.

“Anna is still a ways away from being ready,” Auriemma told SNY after UConn’s win over St. John’s.

While that may seem like a laundry list of injuries, Auriemma said that’s just par for the course this time of the season — Makurat notwithstanding.

“There’s been a lot of nagging things. They’re still there. They’re not going away,” he said. “But this time of year, that’s pretty much everybody. Everybody in college basketball is probably lamenting about the same things.”

Geno makes his pick

With the Super Bowl on Sunday night, Auriemma will be pulling for the Kansas City Chiefs to claim the Lombardi Trophy over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I gotta go with the Kansas City Chiefs because we have a personal rooting interest,” he said. “The defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, is a good friend of ours from UConn.”

Spagnuolo coached at UConn from 1987-1991 as a defensive assistant.