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Nika Mühl’s intangible impact recognized with Big East Defensive Player of the Year Award

Mühl is one of UConn’s most important players despite a relatively modest stat line.

UConn sophomore Nika Mühl has made an impact outside the stat sheet this season.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

On Thursday, Geno Auriemma took a moment before a film session to read off the Big East’s postseason awards. Nika Mühl listened from the back of the room as the coach mentioned the players she expected to hear — Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams on the All-Big East First Team, Caroline Ducharme on the Second Team, Ducharme and Azzi Fudd on the all-freshman team.

Then he got to Big East Defensive Player of the Year.

“Nika Mühl,” Auriemma said.

The sophomore couldn’t believe it.

“I was like, ‘Who?’” she said on Thursday. “I wasn’t expecting anything. I was just very shocked and surprised.”

Afterwards, Mühl texted her family the news. They couldn’t believe it either.

“They told me that I gotta be joking with them,” she said. “They thought I was trolling them or just playing a game with them or something.”

Even Auriemma — who’s coached 11 previous conference players of the year — was taken aback when he found out Mühl won the award. It wasn’t that he didn’t think she deserved the honor, he just didn’t expect her to get the recognition from the rest of the conference.

“I told her I wasn’t surprised (that she earned it), I’m surprised they gave it to her,” he said. “It’s really hard for a Connecticut kid to win any kind of award in the Big East unless they’re superhuman.”

Ducharme felt differently, though. After going up against Mühl the entire season in practice and playing alongside her in games, Ducharme felt the sophomore point guard was the only player worthy of being named the best defender in the conference.

“I was not surprised. I think if you would give it to anyone else, it would just be a joke, honestly,” Ducharme said. “I’m so happy for her. She deserves it and I think we see it every day and it’s great to have for her to get that recognition.”

Mühl isn’t the type of player that will typically collect many accolades or awards. Her stat line doesn’t jump out — she averages just 4.3 points per game, fewest among the nine players in UConn’s rotation, along with 3.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.6 steals per game. But using the eye test alone, it’s clear that the Huskies are a better team when she’s on the floor.

“It’s interesting that both last year and this year, our team changed significantly when we when we put Nika on the starting lineup,” Auriemma said. “So obviously she plays a pretty significant role.”

However, it can often be hard to get an answer as to how exactly she makes them better. Usually, either Auriemma or Mühl’s teammates will speak in vague, general terms — she provides energy, toughness, an edge, a spark — but don’t often dive into the specifics of what makes her so valuable.

“She just sets the tone for us defensively,” Ducharme said. “She’s the top of our defense, so I think it sets the tone for how we’re supposed to play, how aggressive we’re supposed to be.”

Obviously, Mühl’s impact starts on the defensive end. UConn took a major step forward last season — especially defensively — when she entered the starting lineup, but Mühl has made strides as an on-ball defender this year. Her number one job is to disrupt the opponent’s offense and she does that by making life difficult for the point guard.

“She guards the other team’s point guard every game and kind of sets the tone for us and how we’re going to do it and what kind of pressure we’re going to be able to put,” Auriemma said. “She guards her man and then she’s got your man, too, and then she’s got your man, too. So it’s like having three people out there sometimes.”

But even as the coach spoke about what exactly Mühl does on the floor to make the Huskies a better team, he couldn’t help but slip back into speaking about intangibles that she provides.

“She just has an infectious spirit that makes a difference,” Auriemma said.

In Mühl’s own view, that means doing the dirty work. While a lot of players want to score as much as they can and make the highlight-reel plays that end up on SportsCenter, Mühl would rather make plays that aren’t flashy but help win games.

“Growing up, I wasn’t the best offensive player. I always had good offensive players on my team whether it was the national team, my club team, even here,” she said. “I always kind of took pride in the stuff that people didn’t really like to do like defense, doing the dirty work, little things that might go under the radar, that people might not notice. So I always took pride in that because I knew like my team sees it, my coaches see, and that’s all that mattered to me.”

That mindset is why Auriemma often refers to Mühl as an old-school player.

“Today’s world, scoring points is what it’s all about, right? That’s what gets you on TikTok, that’s what gets your social media thing going,” Auriemma said. “Nika is not about that. In today’s day and age, she’s an anomaly I would say.”

This will be Mühl’s first real postseason. Last year, she hurt her left ankle in the first game of the Big East Tournament, though she returned the next day. In UConn’s opening NCAA Tournament game, Mühl sprained her right ankle and didn’t return until the Final Four. Even when she was on the court, she wasn’t fully healthy.

While those injuries weren’t the sole reason the Huskies came up short of another national championship, it did represent a persistent problem the program’s faced since 2016. UConn’s had plenty of All-Americans and stars during its five-year national title drought but it’s lacked the unheralded role players — the ones whose impact goes beyond the box score.

The Huskies have one this year in Mühl. From Auriemma’s experience, that can go a long way in March.

“I don’t know that you can be an exceptionally good team without having those players,” Auriemma said. “You have to have at least one. If you have more than one, then you’ve got something really special.”