Women’s Basketball: An early preview of next year

Gabby Williams lines up a free throw attempt in the first half of UConn's 82-51 victory over Syracuse in the national championship game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday April 5, 2016. Williams, a sophomore, will return to UConn next season. (Bailey Wright/The Daily Campus)

The UConn women’s basketball team will lose quite a bit of firepower next season, as superstar seniors Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson closed out their illustrious careers with a victory over Syracuse in the National Championship Game on Tuesday night. Additionally, prolific offensive forward Morgan Tuck is on schedule to graduate in May, and could choose to forfeit her one remaining year of eligibility.

But even without Stewart, Jefferson and possibly Tuck, the team is in excellent position to contend for a 12th national title next season.

The Huskies will return a host of integral contributors to this year’s team, and head coach Geno Auriemma has nabbed another impressive recruiting class to help begin the program’s next era.

With Stewart and Jefferson gone, there will be two gigantic holes to fill in the starting lineup, and another hole will open if Tuck chooses not to return. Current sophomore Kia Nurse and current freshman Katie Lou Samuelson are very likely to keep their spots in the starting lineup next season, as they were both very important to UConn’s NCAA tournament run.

The likely replacement for the speedy Jefferson will be incoming freshman Crystal Dangerfield, who ESPN ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the 2016 class. Dangerfield, a 5-foot-6 guard from Tennessee, was named to the Naismith High School All-America third team as a junior last year.

Auriemma called Dangerfield “one of those unique little guards, like [Moriah Jefferson], where she is strong enough and quick enough that she can get things done that a lot of players can’t.”

Replacing Stewart, a three-time AP Player of the Year and a powerhouse on both ends of the floor, is an impossible task. Auriemma may choose to start transfer Natalie Butler, who has come off the bench for the Huskies in the second half of the season after sitting out the first few months with a thumb injury. The 6-foot-5 Butler won Big East Freshman of the Year at Georgetown in 2014, finishing fifth in the nation with 13.3 rebounds per game.

Dangerfield and Butler will help make up for the departures of Jefferson and Stewart, but there will still be a big drop-off in production at those two spots in the starting lineups.

However, the Huskies can help make up for this drop-off by relying more on Nurse and Samuelson. Nurse hasn’t posted huge numbers in her career at UConn, but has showed flashes of greatness and proved in international play that she can carry a bigger offensive workload. Nurse scored 33 points to lead her home country of Canada to an 81-73 win over the United States in the Gold Medal Match at the 2015 Pan American Games.

Samuelson, who was ranked No. 1 by ESPN in the class of 2015, suffered an unfortunate setback by breaking her left foot in the national semifinal Sunday, but should be fully healthy in time for next season. Samuelson has averaged 11.1 points this season and leads the team with 78 three-point field goals made.

The crucial question mark remains Tuck, who chose to take part in Senior Day festivities in February but remains undecided about returning in the fall. If she returns, she would definitely be UConn’s best player, and the team’s lead offensive option down on the post. Auriemma may also choose to bring Butler off the bench and play Tuck as the de-facto center.

Should Tuck leave, the Huskies would probably slide either Gabby Williams or Napheesa Collier into her spot in the starting lineup. Both Williams and Collier have been important contributors to the team this season and will take on larger roles going forward. The two players combined to average 15.6 points, and both started several games before Samuelson established herself as the Huskies’ fifth starter.

UConn will also be bringing in two new recruits to join the bench unit, which also includes Saniya Chong, Courtney Ekmark and Tierney Lawlor. Those recruits are 6-foot-2 forward Kyla Irwin, who averaged 20 points and 13.1 rebounds at State College High, and Molly Bent, a 5-foot-9 guard from Massachusetts.

Even without Tuck, the Huskies should be heavy favorites to repeat as American Athletic Conference champions next season, with only South Florida serving as comparable competition. With Tuck, UConn is a safe bet to land a No. 1 seed in next year’s NCAA tournament, but they would definitely have a shot even if she leaves.

Even considering the departures of key players, the Huskies will be in the mix to bring home their fifth-consecutive national championship next year. After all, it’s never wise to bet against Geno Auriemma in March.


Tyler Keating is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu.