The Albany Great Danes may be a 49-point underdog when they take on UConn in Storrs Saturday morning, but that doesn’t mean head coach Geno Auriemma and the Huskies will treat the game like it’s easy.
“I’ve never taken a first round game lightly and neither will my players,” Auriemma said. “But if it was a done deal, then why are we playing?”
That approach is part of what makes the Huskies so successful year in and year out. Having great players certainly makes things easier too.
Just prior to the Huskies’ first press conference of the tournament, sophomores Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were named as two of the four finalists for the Naismith Women’s College Player of the Year Award. They were joined by Washington’s Kelsey Plum and South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson.
Despite the talent and success of this team, it certainly does lack the tournament experience that past UConn teams had so much of. Just six current Huskies have played in the NCAA tournament prior to this season, with only one (Kia Nurse) playing more than 200 total minutes. Only Nurse, Samuelson and Williams have ever started for the Huskies in tournament play, with Williams making just one start in last year’s championship game after Samuelson was ruled out due to a foot injury.
“We have a lot of good players. What we don’t have is experience to warrant what we just did [this season],” Auriemma said.
Even without the usual tournament experience, this year’s UConn team remains the favorite to cut down the nets in Dallas, Texas in early April. But the unpredictability of the NCAA tournament is what makes it so great. Upsets occur early and often, and no team is safe. The Huskies aren’t any different.
While it hasn’t happened in the men’s tournament, a No. 16 seed has toppled a No. 1 seed in the women’s tournament before. In 1998, the No. 16 Harvard Crimson upset an injury-depleted No. 1 Stanford team 71-67 to pull off the greatest upset in history of the women’s tournament.
“A 16 seed has only won once in the NCAA tournament, but here they, they’re at UConn, and as long as the refs show up, as long as the guy keeping score shows up, they have a chance,” Auriemma said of Albany. “After 40 minutes, we’ll decide how big of a chance they had.”
The Crimson’s historic upset gives hope to a team like Albany, who is coming off their sixth-straight America East Conference tournament title. Last year, Albany upset No. 5 Florida as a No. 12 seed before falling to eventual runner-up Syracuse in the second round. Two years ago, the No. 13 Great Danes led by four with 1:15 left against No. 4 Duke before the Blue Devils came back and barely advanced.
This year, the Great Danes finished second in the regular season standings before running the table for conference title No. 6.
“They play great team basketball, that’s something that I saw on film. They move the ball well, they find spaces and gaps where they can be successful,” Nurse said.
Is likely that Albany topples the Huskies and hands them their first loss in 107 games? Probably not. But it’s possible, and that’s the beauty of March madness.
“The fact that we’re playing and keeping score means that they have a chance,” Auriemma said. “And that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?”