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UConn WBB Weekly: Time is the Huskies’ biggest enemy

UConn is finally starting to get healthy but the postseason is just over a week away.

The UConn women wrap up the regular season on against Providence on Sunday at Gampel.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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 WBB Weekly Premium:

From The UConn Blog:

Last week’s Weekly:

Elsewhere:

  • WNBA mock draft 2022, version 3.0 (ESPN) — Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa are both projected for the first round
  • UConn moved up to No. 7 in the latest AP Poll.

Time is UConn’s biggest enemy

There were times this season when everything that could go wrong did go wrong for UConn women’s basketball. The Huskies have been cursed with a seemingly non-stop string of bad luck dating back to the summer — a level of misfortune that would be deemed implausible if it were pitched as the plot of a movie.

“Everything that happened is stuff that we can’t even make up,” Evina Westbrook said after UConn’s win over Marquette. “Just some crazy, crazy things you can’t even imagine.”

While injuries and illness have been the main culprits, they aren’t the only ones. Back on Jan. 30, the Huskies were set to head to Providence for a game that had already been changed to a different time and venue due to a snowstorm. While UConn typically travels to road games the night before, the weather forced the team to make the trip all in a single day. So naturally, the bus broke down.

“Our bus didn’t start so Providence had to send vans to come and get us,” Westbrook said. “We took separate vans and we’re hopping outta these little minivans at the game.”

“AAU vibes,” Olivia Nelson-Ododa chimed in with a smile.

The Huskies do appear to have gotten through the worst of it, though. The win over Marquette was the third-straight contest they’ve had everyone available except Paige Bueckers — and even Bueckers’ return seems imminent as she participated in warmups and dressed for Wednesday’s game.

Assuming UConn continues to stay healthy — which, based on the way this season has gone, is far from a guarantee — its biggest remaining opponent isn’t South Carolina or any other team in the country. It’s time.

With two regular-season games left and just over a week until the Big East Tournament begins, the Huskies need to sort out their lineups and chemistry while finding consistency before it’s too late.

This year hasn’t been completely unprecedented, though. In fact, three-quarters of UConn’s coaching staff has already been through something similar during the 1998-99 campaign. Freshman Sue Bird tore her ACL in practice in December and shortly after, Swin Cash came down with a stress fracture in her right leg. Injuries to Shea Ralph and Amy Duran followed in January.

Even though everyone except Bird eventually came back, the Huskies couldn’t put all the pieces together quick enough and they fell to Iowa State in the Sweet Sixteen, 64-58.

“We never had a chance to be together long enough to improve (throughout the season),” Geno Auriemma said postgame. “Every time we got really good at something, we had to change the kids we were playing. We never settled into a routine. We never had a sense of who the go-to players were, who the leaders were, who would distribute and rebound the ball. It never felt like there was any continuity.”

This year’s UConn squad will face some of the same questions. Who’s the go-to scorer? Caroline Ducharme got the final shot against DePaul but Azzi Fudd has shown a knack for clutch baskets. Bueckers seems to be the obvious option, but should she get the ball in big spots if she’s not 100 percent?

Can UConn count on anyone to play the same way every single game? What roles are best for certain players? Which personnel groupings work well together? Who should be on the court at the end of games?

Those are all critical answers for Auriemma and his staff to answer, especially with so much game-to-game flux up until the last week or so.

The Huskies have used nine different starting lineup combinations this season and only had everyone (except Bueckers) available for four games — the last three and the win at DePaul on Jan. 26. As a result, the on-court chemistry is still a work in progress.

“At first it almost felt weird to have so many people back,” Westbrook said. “We’re used to playing with just five or six people and we kind of just got used to that.”

Even if UConn does find a groove over its last two regular-season games, the process will essentially restart once Bueckers returns and there will be a time crunch in two regards: First, how long will it take the sophomore to return to form? And will Bueckers even look like her old self this season? Second, how long will it take Bueckers to re-integrate back into the lineup? Even within the team, the opinions vary.

“It’s gonna be another adjustment when we get everyone back, trying to adjust for everyone being back,” Westbrook said.

“You’ve been telling me all this time that when we get everybody back, it’s gonna be amazing. Now, ‘Hey, when you get anybody everybody back, what are you going to do?’ Everything gets sorted out eventually,” Auriemma said. “If Paige is playing, then the rest will take care of itself.”

The way the remainder of the season is structured doesn’t do UConn any favors, either. Including Wednesday’s win, the Huskies have one day between their final three contests before getting five days off before the Big East Tournament. Then, UConn will (presumably) play three games in as many days, which doesn’t allow for any practice time between to make adjustments or improvements.

After that, there will be roughly 10 days until the NCAA Tournament starts, which will give the Huskies plenty of practice but no games, which are crucial for building the all-important on-court chemistry.

Ultimately, UConn will have to make do with the time it has. Even though the Huskies are finally getting healthy, the postseason is about to begin. If the last three months have shown anything, it’s that UConn has the talent and coaching to be national championship contenders, especially since there’s no dominant team outside South Carolina — and even they’ve shown flaws.

But time is the biggest enemy for the Huskies the rest of the way. If they can get everyone back at full strength and figure out how to make it all work, they’ll be tough to beat. If not, they could suffer a similar fate to the 1998-99 squad.


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