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UConn women’s basketball: Outlook for 2021-22 season

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The Huskies are bringing (nearly) everyone back while also adding a top transfer and highly-touted freshman class.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four Semifinal-Arizona at Connecticut Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Despite significant roster turnover, a heavy reliance on three freshmen, and a season drastically affected by a global pandemic, UConn women’s basketball still finished with a 28-2 record, won the Big East, and reached its 13th consecutive Final Four.

Next season, the Huskies will bring back everyone except Anna Makurat while adding Ohio State grad transfer Dorka Juhász and a freshman class that includes Azzi Fudd, Amari DeBerry, and Caroline Ducharme — all top-15 prospects.

After breaking down how each player in the backcourt and frontcourt performed this past season, now it’s time to look ahead to next year.

Note: Players are listed by their 2021-22 years.

Seniors

Evina Westbrook — Guard

Westbrook decided to return for her redshirt senior season instead of entering the WNBA Draft and will likely feature in the same do-everything, Swiss Army knife role next season. However, with the addition of some impressive offensive talents in Juhász, Fudd, and Ducharme, Westbrook probably won’t need to carry the scoring load as much as she did this year.

Dorka Juhász — Forward

The Huskies’ newest addition, Juhász should provide a consistent scoring option in the paint — something UConn has lacked since Napheesa Collier graduated. While the Huskies’ transfer history is rather hit-or-miss, the players who played major roles at power conference schools — like Evina Westbrook (Tennessee) or Azura Stevens (Duke) — have handled the move better than those who came from a lower level — such as Natalie Butler (Georgetown) or Evelyn Adebayo (Murray State).

As a back-to-back All-Big Ten First Team selection, Juhász has the ability and skill to play at UConn but will need to handle the expectations and pressure that comes with it.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa — Center/Forward

Whether fair or not, Nelson-Ododa’s one-point, 0-7 shooting performance in the Final Four loss to Arizona will be the defining game of her junior season, much like her scoreless, 0-8 shooting performance against Baylor defined her sophomore season.

Moving forward, the addition of Juhász should take the scoring load off Nelson-Ododa and allow her to focus on distribution and rebounding, which is something she excelled at towards the end of the season and better fits her skillset at this point in her career.

Christyn Williams — Guard

After struggling with inconsistency for much of the season, Williams finally put it all together against Iowa in the NCAA Tournament with 27 points and a strong defensive effort on Caitlin Clark.

“Today she looked like the Christyn Williams that we saw when we were recruiting her: A kid that can make shots from everywhere, can make shots at the basket, can make shots from the three-point line, can attack you in transition,” Auriemma said after the game.

Defensively, she proved herself to be a lockdown defender over the final 13 games — even if she struggled against Arizona’s Aari McDonald — and should only improve in that regard next year. The big question: Can she sustain the level of play we saw from her on offense from the Sweet Sixteen on? If so, Williams will give UConn another scoring option next to Bueckers and should put herself in contention to be an All-American.

Juniors

Aubrey Griffin — Forward

Through two years, Griffin has essentially owned the same role for the Huskies: A spark plug off the bench who can hit the glass, disrupt on defense, and score in bunches now and then. After UConn lost last summer’s workout time to the pandemic, this offseason will be crucial for Griffin’s development. She has the potential to be a dominant, impactful player on both ends of the floor with her athleticism but needs to refine her skills in order to get there.

The only other player on the Huskies that can fill the same role as Griffin is Mir McLean, so the rising junior will continue to get minutes one way or another. The question is whether the rising junior can take her game to the next level or if she’ll always be a complementary piece.

Sophomores

Paige Bueckers — Guard

Despite everything she accomplished during the best freshman season in program history, there’s still plenty Bueckers can improve on going into next season.

“She needs to get a lot better,” Auriemma said after the Arizona loss. “As good as you all think she is — and she’s really good — if we’re going to be here the next couple years with her at Connecticut, she needs to get a lot better. I don’t mean just on the court either.”

Auriemma pushed Bueckers to be more aggressive and selfish for most of the season and there were also times her foot speed was slow on defense, so there a few clear things for her to work on. The more eyebrow-raising part of his comment was that Bueckers needed to get better off the court. While Auriemma didn’t get into exactly what he meant, he might’ve hinted at it a few days earlier.

“I said ‘Paige, you know you almost cost us because you didn’t wait for that screen?” he said prior to the Final Four, referencing UConn’s final possession against Baylor. “She just walked away and goes ‘We won. We won.’ And that was her answer to everything. Didn’t argue with me, didn’t do anything.”

Regardless, everything will once again revolve around Bueckers next season. The big question isn’t how much Bueckers can improve, but how much everyone around her will.

Aaliyah Edwards — Forward

Edwards had one of the best freshman seasons at UConn in recent memory and has already proven herself to be a force in the paint. Even Auriemma couldn’t help but wonder how dominant Edwards could be in the not-too-distant future.

“To have a freshman like that, I can’t even imagine what she’s gonna look like in a couple of years,” he said after the Sweet Sixteen.

Now that she has a full season under her belt, there’s no limit to what Edwards could do as a sophomore with her combination of size, strength, and athleticism.

Piath Gabriel — Center/forward

Gabriel came to Storrs as a project big and was exactly that during her freshman season. With Juhász now in the mix along with Nelson-Ododa, Edwards, and Amari DeBerry, Gabriel won’t be counted on next season and in all likelihood will continue to develop behind the scenes.

Nika Mühl — Guard

Mühl’s role for next season is one of the most difficult to project. On one hand, the return of Westbrook, Williams, and Bueckers, along with Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme coming in means backcourt minutes will be at a premium. But at the same time, none of those players can fill the same role as Mühl as a pass-first, defensive point guard.

“We’re a different basketball team, a much different basketball team (without Mühl),” Auriemma said ahead of the Final Four. “You don’t replace a defensive guard like that.”

Mühl’s distribution and defense will still get her plenty of playing time but she’ll probably need to improve as a scorer and as a shooter to maintain the 24.4 minutes per game that she averaged this season.

Mir McLean — Forward

McLean had her moments as a freshman and often impressed with her athleticism and rebounding, she just struggled to maintain her performance minute to minute and game over game. McLean has already proven that she can contribute but will need to be more consistent to earn a spot in the rotation next year.

Autumn Chassion — Guard

Chassion saw as much time and made as much of an impact as you would’ve expected out of a freshman walk-on, but with UConn projected to have such a loaded squad, there should be more opportunity for Chassion to play in the final minutes of a blowout.

Freshman

Saylor Poffenbarger — Guard

After joining the team ahead of schedule in January, Poffenbarger will be better-prepared both for the college game and life away from home than the other three freshmen. While she didn’t exactly impress in her 33 minutes this season, Auriemma didn’t set expectations for Poffenbarger when she arrived and said the goal of her early enrollment wasn’t necessarily to help the team this year, but to get her ready for her first full freshman campaign. Until we see Poffenbarger on the court after a full summer of workouts and a preseason, it’s too early to make any judgments.

Azzi Fudd — Guard

Whether fair or not, expectations for Fudd will likely be higher than what Bueckers faced as a freshman. Not only was Bueckers somehow better than advertised, but Fudd is also supposedly just as talented — maybe even more so.

Expectations aside, Fudd should provide an immediate impact for the Huskies on offense. She’s a stellar 3-point shooter — NBA MVP Steph Curry compared her to Ray Allen and Klay Thompson in that regard — which is something UConn sorely lacked beyond Bueckers this past season.

“She’s a phenomenal shooter of the basketball,” Auriemma said back in November. “I think anybody that’s seen her play will tell you that’s something that stands out, even among all the really, really great shooters. She’s a kid that when she shoots the ball, it goes into the basket. Period.”

Fudd also plays with a calm demeanor and is someone who “studies the game, thinks the game, and enjoys playing the game” of basketball, according to the coach. While no freshman should come in with expectations to be an All-American or national player of the year candidate in their first season, Fudd should still be an impact offensive player for UConn from the jump.

Caroline Ducharme — Guard

Though Fudd grabs most of the headlines, UConn will bring in a second elite backcourt prospect in Ducharme, the No. 5 overall player in the class of 2021. A bigger guard at roughly 6-foot-2, Ducharme is another sharpshooter to help alleviate the Huskies’ woes from beyond the arc. Though she’s drawn comparisons to Katie Lou Samuelson in particular, Ducharme fits a classic UConn mold.

“Getting Caroline, we needed another big wing who could shoot the ball and play multiple positions because we love those kinds of players,” he said.

Despite a crowded backcourt, Ducharme’s versatility and shooting ability should help earn minutes, presumably in a role off the bench.

Amari DeBerry — Center/forward

DeBerry is a 6-foot-5 skilled post player out of Buffalo. She’s regarded as a player who can alter shots defensively and also step out to hit 3-pointers down the other end. With Juhász, Nelson-Ododa, and Edwards all presumably ahead of her on the depth chart, there may not be too many minutes available for DeBerry early on — but that also means she won’t have the pressure to contribute right away.