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UConn WBB Weekly: As Sweet Sixteen approaches, the Huskies’ rotation is still uncertain

UConn is trying to figure out how to make all of the pieces fit on the fly.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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As Sweet Sixteen approaches, UConn’s rotation is still unclear

In the six games since Paige Bueckers returned from injury prior to Monday’s second round matchup against UCF, Geno Auriemma had established a clear rotation of nine players: Bueckers, Caroline Ducharme, Azzi Fudd, Nika Mühl, Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams in the backcourt; Aaliyah Edwards, Dorka Juhász, Olivia Nelson-Ododa in the frontcourt.

The playing time was distributed relatively evenly, too. Nobody averaged more than 28 minutes per game and nobody (except Bueckers, who dealt with minutes restrictions) averaged fewer than 17.5 minutes per game. That trend continued into the first half against UCF, when all nine players saw action.

But in the second half, Auriemma shortened his bench. Fudd and Williams played all 40 minutes, while Westbrook didn’t check in until there were two minutes left in the quarter. Meanwhile, Ducharme and Mühl didn’t see the court at all in the second half.

While the lack of time for both players was surprising, Mühl’s absence was especially hard to understand considering how often Auriemma talks about her importance and value to the team. Though she committed two fouls in the first half, she had a +7 rating — second-best among the Huskies — despite only being out there for six minutes.

Afterwards, Auriemma made it clear that the decision to keep Mühl on the bench had nothing to do with performance.

“Every time you put somebody in the game, you have to take somebody out,” he said. “It was nothing that Nika did. We needed somebody who’s a scorer. We didn’t need anybody to help us play better defense tonight. Obviously she came in the second quarter...and she was instrumental in changing the tempo of the game. But I just felt like we needed offense.”

It’s easy to understand the decision, but Auriemma’s other moves didn’t necessarily reflect that. Westbrook played 12 minutes in the second half but didn’t take a shot or record a rebound. Ducharme could’ve provided offense, but she didn’t leave the bench.

Instead, Auriemma seemed to roll with the players he trusted the most. While Westbrook didn’t score, she also didn’t turn the ball over, which was important against the tough UCF defense. That could also be why Ducharme didn’t return — the freshman can be turnover-prone, and a couple bad mistakes could have completely turned the game around.

That would also explain why Bueckers played 32 minutes, her most since returning from injury. Though her final line of nine points and two assists wasn’t bad, it’s still a far cry from the player she was at this time last season. That didn’t matter to Auriemma, though.

“I don’t expect Paige to play great. I don’t care if we play 35 more games in the next three weeks. I think the expectation level for me is really, really low given how much time she sat out — given what she’s coming off of,” he said. “But having her on the court obviously benefits us in so many ways. And the fact that I had her on the floor for 32 minutes says something, you know?”

Based on what we saw against UCF, UConn’s rotation seems likely to play out in two different ways. Auriemma will use everyone in the first half and gauge their respective performances to determine who will get the most time in the second half, or he will rely on the players he trusts the most to get the job done in crunch time regardless.

Either way, the Huskies’ depth chart is clear entering the regionals. Bueckers, Fudd and Williams are the main options in the backcourt, Mühl — depending on the matchup — and Westbrook are the top reserves while Ducharme needs to prove herself again. Edwards, Juhász and Nelson-Ododa will split the frontcourt minutes depending on foul trouble and performance.

While UConn might be preparing for the Sweet Sixteen, the rotation is still a bit of a mystery. Even Auriemma seemed to figuring it out on the fly in Monday’s game. Obviously, the NCAA Tournament isn’t the ideal time to be tinkering, but that’s what the Huskies have to deal with thanks to all the injuries and absence throughout the regular season.

UConn needs to figure out how all the pieces fit together and quickly. Whether or not that happens will likely be the key factor in how far the Huskies advance.

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