When the UConn women’s basketball team takes the court this season, there will be a new look to their starting five. Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, three of the best players to ever step onto UConn’s campus, are gone, taking the core of the Huskies’ unprecedented four-straight national championships with them.
Geno Auriemma, UConn’s head coach and 11-time national champion, is back though, and that’s nothing to scoff at. As one of the game’s best coaches, Auriemma has seen his fair share of ups and downs in Storrs, but he has never seen a season and team like the one he has put together this season.
Auriemma and UConn aren’t strangers to winning national championships, especially consecutive ones. The Huskies won three in a row from 2001-04, two in a row from 2008-10 and of course four straight in these last four seasons. The three-peat, which began with the senior class of Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Asjha Jones, and was finished by Diana Taurasi, was the first real stretch of extended dominance the Huskies had put together. Taurasi’s departure after her senior season left UConn with an enormous void that couldn’t be filled.
From 2004-05 season to the 2006-07 season, Auriemma and company were still successful, but not to their usual standards. UConn lost 17 games over those three seasons, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen once and the Elite Eight twice. This three-year stretch, no lie, is referred to on the UConn women’s basketball Wikipedia page as “The Rebuilding Years,” which goes to show the success of the program. Two Elite Eight appearances and a Sweet Sixteen run meant three down years in Connecticut, but would get any other coach in the country a multi-year extension before the ink could even dry. Such is the life of Auriemma and Connecticut basketball.
The same drop occurred after Tina Charles and Maya Moore graduated in 2009-10 and 2010-11 respectively. In that 2011-12 season, UConn dropped five games on the way to a 35-5 record, with three of those losses coming to Skylar Diggins and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. That team, which featured freshmen Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kiah Stokes, was talented, but simply could not compete with the Irish, who went on to the National Championship game before falling to Baylor.
Make no mistake, those teams in the three years after Taurasi and the year after Moore’s departure were solid teams with good talent, who probably performed a little bit better than they should have due to high-quality coaching from Auriemma. But by UConn’s standards, where the goal is to compete for a title every season, they simply didn’t have the tools, talent and experience to make it a reality.
That’s where this year’s team is different.
While this team is in the same boat as those four teams mentioned earlier in terms of their situation, the roster is still loaded. Kia Nurse, a two-time champion and Olympian for Team Canada, is an experienced point guard and one of the best players in the country. She’ll run the offense until Crystal Dangerfield, a literal clone of Jefferson in size, demeanor and talent, is ready to take the reins. It’s impossible to say she’ll be even nearly as good as Jefferson was last season, but she will be able to impact games immediately with her speed on both ends.
There’s Katie Lou Samuelson, the lengthy swing player who led the Huskies in made three-pointers last season. Samuelson is certainly a knock-down shooter, but has added a full arsenal of post moves and can even take her defender off the dribble. She won’t put up numbers in the way Stewart did, but Samuelson will score a lot and could easily be the most dangerous offensive player in the country. She can do it all.
Throw in Gabby Williams, arguably the best athlete the program has ever seen and sophomore forward Napheesa Collier, who can rebound, block shots, get steals and score down low. Upperclassmen Natalie Butler and Saniya Chong should provide rebounding and shooting respectively at a minimum, and will likely carry the team for at least a game or two this season.
This team may not show its true form right away, due to an insanely difficult opening slate of games, and because underclassmen such as Dangerfield, Molly Bent, Kyla Irwin, Samuelson and Collier will take time to adjust to the game and their new roles. But there will be a game this year where it all comes together. Things will click, and UConn will look as good as ever.
It’s impossible to say when that game will occur, but with a coach like Auriemma, expect it sooner rather than later. This UConn team, for the first time in years, is an underdog, and they’ll embrace it, but they are a lot closer top dog than people might think.