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Don’t Look Now, but UCONN Looks Ready to Contend Once Again


Stopped me if you’ve heard this one before, but UConn is once again poised to win multiple national championships. It may not start this next year — the landscape is far too precarious for any confident predictions — but championships are coming.

The squad is young and new, with just four returning players and no seniors. Evina Westbrook, who sat out last year after transferring from Tennessee, will lead six freshmen seeing the court for the first time.

The last time UConn had as many first-year players on its roster was 1988, when it won its first (of 18) Big East titles. This year will mark the return of UConn to the conference it made famous and is ready to dominate once again.

Then, as now, the young players are a source of optimism. Still, UConn will need its older players to step up. Juniors Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa will anchor any success UConn finds.

“We have been taking up that leadership role,” Williams said. “It’s a lot more responsibility, it’s been different. The younger players have a willingness to learn, and are competitive. They’ve made it easier for us.”

Williams is one of four top-ranked high school recruits to have signed with UConn in the past five classes. The others are Paige Bueckers, who is widely expected to have a standout freshman season, and Azzi Fudd, who will join UConn next year.

“There is a direct correlation between if you sign those guys, at Connecticut anyway, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be an amazing team for a couple of years,” Auriemma said. “Yes, that is a great possibility. Our track record proves that.”

Before last season was cut short, UConn was a lock to enter the tournament as a No. 1 seed. Since then, Megan Walker left early for the WNBA and Crystal Dangerfield graduated before going on to win WNBA Rookie of the Year with the Minnesota Lynx. Seniors Molly Bent, Evelyn Adebayo, Kyla Irwin and Batouly Camara also graduated.

Along with Bueckers, the freshman class also features guard Autumn Chassion, forward Aaliyah Edwards, guard Nika Muhl, forward Mir McLean and forward Piath Gabriel. This group is widely expected to put the Huskies over the edge. Already, Geno Auriemma has been impressed with Edwards, the second highest rated player in the class, and Muhl, whose experience is bolstered by time in the Adriatic League in Croatia, where she led the league with 6.2 assists per game in 2019.

”There are times that Aaliyah and Nika look like they’ve been playing college basketball for awhile. They fit right in,” Auriemma said. ”They slide right in. So Paige, Nika, and Aaliyah mix really well with our returning players. Mir, once in a while, Piath less, Autumn less. But everyone has gotten better.”

Aaliyah Edwards plays a physical game and has been likened to Napheesa Collier by Christyn Williams. Piath Gabriel, at 6-foot-5 freshman, was not a top-end prospect, but UConn’s coaches clearly saw something. And Mir McLean is athletic and versatile, but will probably be a spark off of the bench this season.

The notoriously difficult coach has a team voted the 3rd-best in the preseason. Williams will still be running the show after posting 14.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in her sophomore season, but should have more to offer if given the opportunity. The next of the four returners is Nelson-Ododa, a 6-foot-5 center who played a lot of minutes last season, even if they were not always the most predictive. Still, she was able to record 100 blocks last year, the eight-most in school history.

Aubrey Griffin had 5.4 rebounds per game but struggled with consistency. Anna Makurat will be tasked with spacing the floor as a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter, where she averaged 7.9 points and 3.3 assists per game last year.

Then there is Westbrook, who also has some stroke from distance — she shot 38% from deep in the 2018-19 season. Still, she is recovering from knee surgery and has never played for UConn, so expectations for the redshirt junior should be kept in flux.

Of course, the team’s ceiling may depend on Bueckers. She was tabbed as the preseason Big East Freshman of the Year, but as she will be the first to say, it’s far too early to celebrate.

“I haven’t even done anything yet, I haven’t even stepped foot on a college court,” Bueckers said. “I have a lot to prove. I have a lot to work on.”

The good news is, she has some time—but not as much as you’d think.

While the 2020-2021 season may be a bit too hectic for even the sport’s most talented freshman to conquer, starting next year, with Azzi Fudd joining a more experienced Huskies squad, the expectation will be championships, plural.

That’s welcome news for Husky fans. For everyone else, well, we can try to enjoy at least this season.