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2020-21 Big East Women’s Basketball Team Preview: Connecticut Huskies

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This is what it felt like with the Death Star was moving into position at Yavin 4, isn’t it?

BASKETBALL: MAY 25 USA Basketball Women’s U17 World Cup Team Trials
Getty Images has two pages of Paige Bueckers photos in the hopper. Yes, already.
Photo by Marc Piscotty/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Team: Connecticut Huskies

2019-20 Record: 26-3, 16-0 in the American Athletic Conference

2019-20 American Athletic Conference Finish: Lol, first, they never lost a game over there, and second place was 11-5.

Final 2019-20 Her Hoop Stats Ranking: #4

Postseason Projection: High Post Hoops had the Huskies as a #2 seed, which is generally speaking a surprise for UConn since that’s not a #1 seed.

Key Departures: The Huskies had five seniors last season, but that’s not as big of a problem as you think it is, as only three of them were notable contributors. However, Connecticut had a junior year defection to the WNBA Draft.

UConn will be looking to replace their top two scorers in Megan Walker and Crystal Dangerfield. Walker departed the program following her junior season where she led the Huskies with 19.7 points per game and just missed on the top spot in rebounding at 8.4 per contest. She was the ninth overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, so it’s hard to second guess her for leaving with a season of eligibility remaining. Dangerfield contributed 14.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, and a team high 3.9 assists per game, so that’s a whole lot of production going out the door on only those two.

Kyla Irwin was a regular rotation contributor for UConn last season, giving them 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds in 16.6 per game. Molly Bent burned up 9.3 minutes on the court in her 27 appearances, but didn’t do much else on the stat sheet.

Key Returners: I think we have to start with Christyn Williams, the newly crowned Big East Preseason Player of the Year. The 5’11” guard is UConn’s leading returning scorer coming off a season where she appeared in all 32 games as a sophomore and averaged 14.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game. Olivia Nelson-Ododa earned preseason all-league honors from the Big East after chipping in 10.9 points and a team high 8.5 rebounds last season. I guess the good news is that the 6’5” Georgia native doesn’t shoot threes. Aubrey Griffin (6.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.0 assists) and Anna Makurat (7.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists) stepped right into the rotation as freshmen last season, with Makurat earning the start in 14 games.

Key Additions: Well, we start this category by pointing out that Connecticut has the #1 recruiting class in the country according to Prospects Nation largely because they have Paige Bueckers, the top prospect in the Class of 2020. The 5’11” point guard is already a basketball and internet sensation, so that’ll be a treat to deal with for the next four seasons. They also add two more women in ESPN’s top 100 in Aaliyah Edwards (6’3”, #23) and Mir McLean (5’11”, #25). Prospects Nation has Bueckers at #1, McLean at #11, and doesn’t rank Edwards at all.... presumably because she’s Canadian. However, PN does put Piath Gabriel (6’5”) at #41. All of this leaves Nika Muhl (5’10”) out in the cold as UConn’s least heralded incoming prospect. UConn also has Autumn Chassion coming in as a walk-on. The 5’8” guard averaged 15 points and 10 assists last year as she led her high school squad to their fourth straight Louisiana state title.... so I get the impression that she might be able to contribute, but that’s just guesswork.

Oh, and we have to put Evina Westbrook here. The 6’0” guard redshirted last season after transferring in from Tennessee, so she’s never appeared in a game for the Huskies. She starts her active tenure in Storrs off as a preseason all-conference honoree in the Big East. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you lead the Vols in points (14.9) and assists (5.3) as a sophomore in 2018-19.

Coach: Geno Auriemma, entering his 36th season. This is the only Division 1 head coaching job he has ever had. He has a record of 1091-142, and no, that’s not a typo on any level.

Outlook: Okay, look, here’s the outlook on the Huskies: They’re the favorite to win the league in everyone’s eyes. If you think otherwise, you’re lying to yourself and you should go to the penalty box and feel shame.

[extremely Stephen A. Smith voice] HOWEVER, I think it’s safe to say that UConn is not exactly the rampaging titan of destruction that they have been over most of the length and breadth of Geno Auriemma’s tenure as head coach. I mean, yes, they’ve been to 12 straight Final Fours and 14 straight Elite Eights. Yes, they went through seven seasons in the AAC without losing a single conference game, and yes, that includes the AAC tournament, too. Very scary stuff.

They’re also only returning four players that gave them anything last season, five if you want to count Evina Westbrook since she was practicing with them but not playing. Yes, Christyn Williams is the absolutely justifiable preseason player of the year in the league. And sure, Olivia Nelson-Ododa was a starter on last year’s squad and earned all-Big East awards heading into this year as a constant double-double threat. But Anna Makurat was a role player on last year’s team and Aubrey Griffin was an often used but never relied upon sub.

That’s it for active returning players for Connecticut. If they’re going to be the world destroying force that we’ve seen in the past from the Huskies, they’re going to have to depend on their newcomers an awful lot to get there. Generally speaking, depending on your newcomers an awful lot is not the best way to install yourself as a national title contender.

Sure, Paige Bueckers is probably going to start from the get-go, and justifiably so, and probably be pretty good out there. Aaliyah Edwards and Mir McLean could be game-changing forces based on their recruiting rankings and they absolutely would be on almost any other team. But they’re freshmen, and sometimes the acclimation to college doesn’t go the way you want it to go for your players, even when you’re the best coach in the history of the sport.

Westbrook brings in two years of starting experience from Tennessee, and that’s no joke. The Vols might not be what they once were these days, but if you can put up the numbers Westbrook did in Knoxville, you can go. The Big East coaches agree, because they put her on the preseason all-league team. It’s probably really important that she can do that again in Storrs, because I’ve now rattled off eight names...... and that’s how big Geno Auriemma’s game in/game out rotation was last season.

Connecticut is going to be depending an awful lot on players that have never played in a live game together in order to win basketball games. Sure, the returning core can help make the whole thing stand up on stage when the curtain goes up, but we don’t know how things will react when the hot lights are shining for hours and hours on end. It might be a rougher season than anyone up in The Nutmeg State really wants to see.

...... which means they might lose [checks on records while in the AAC] FOUR WHOLE GAMES this season! I mean, let’s not get crazy, UConn hasn’t lost five games in a season since 2011-12, and you have to go back to 2004-05 (they were 25-8!) to find a year when they lost more than that.

They’re probably going to be fine. But there’s cracks here, and we’ll see how those cracks withstand playing in a league that actually cares about women’s basketball.