In this year’s Final Four in Dallas, Texas, Geno Auriemma and the 2016-17 UConn Huskies women’s basketball team suffered a brutal end to what seemed like another magical undefeated season, losing to the Mississippi State Bulldogs in overtime 66-64.
That Huskies team heard all kinds of criticisms in the build-up to last season. They’re too young. They lost their three best players. They don’t have a good bench. They won’t last in the regular season. This team won’t succeed in March. Then, when UConn passed every test and reached the incredible milestone of 100 consecutive victories, the team once again heard shouts of how their dominance was bad for the sport, how 100 straight wins didn’t matter.
The Huskies’ youth and inexperience was later proven correct, or so it seemed, in the Final Four loss to the Bulldogs. Their dominance was questioned, if only for a moment, as the reign of the four-time defending champions was over.
If that team was young, the 2017-18 team will be battle-tested and experienced. UConn lost only two seniors, Saniya Chong and Tierney Lawlor, along with Natalie Butler who decided to transfer to George Mason as a graduate student. The vocal leadership of soon-to-be seniors Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse will be incredibly important following their departure and the two starters should do just fine.
Superstars Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier will be juniors, with one more year under their belts and the sting of their first collegiate loss motivating them to perform at a higher level than before. Freshman point guard Crystal Dangerfield will improve as the team’s floor general with a full off-season under Auriemma, while Molly Bent and Kyla Irwin will find their roles on the team as well.
And those are just the returning players. Redshirt junior Azura Stevens will join the active roster next year after sitting out this season as a transfer from Duke. The 6’6” forward should seamlessly slot into the starting lineup in place of Chong and give the Huskies some much needed size. Coach Auriemma once said that Stevens was the best player in the country last season and she wasn’t even going to play a minute. Stevens isn’t the only transfer to play a role in UConn’s rotation, however. Joining her will be Kentucky transfer and redshirt sophomore Batouly Camara, a 6’2” forward who will add front court depth following the departure of Butler.
Think that represents all of the potential of the 2017-18 roster? Not quite. On top of the returning players and incoming transfers, Auriemma has also managed to bring in another fantastic recruiting class. This year’s incoming freshman class is headlined by the No. 1 high school player in the nation, Megan Walker. Walker is a 6’1” wing with the ability to score inside and outside and can defend multiple positions with her length. Joining Walker are Mikayla Coombs, Lexi Gordon and Andra Espinoza-Hunter, the No. 14, No. 29 and No. 37 recruits in the nation, respectively.
Coombs, the Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year, and Espinoza-Hunter, the New York Gatorade Player of the Year, will add to the wealth of guards that Auriemma has at his disposal. Both are combo guards that will be able to contribute valuable minutes at either guard position and give the likes of Samuelson, Nurse and Dangerfield some rest. Like Walker, Gordon is a wing player with a great mid-range game. Gordon might be a slightly better perimeter shooter and will also give great depth to a Huskies team that really lacked depth last season. This recruiting class is so stacked that each could potentially contribute right away, though Auriemma will probably pick just Walker and two of the others to feature a little more heavily.
To clarify, last year’s team went six players deep, maybe seven if Auriemma was confident in the ability of Butler and Dangerfield to contribute in the big games. For the 2017-18 season, Auriemma could very well have a team that goes as many as 13 players deep with plenty of experience to boot.
Think about that for a second. If the questions ahead of last season were about the team’s youth and lack of depth, than Auriemma has more than answered those questions in his recruiting process. Being the master talent evaluator and teacher that he is, Auriemma will surely coach up his returning players as well and make sure they never forget the feeling of losing in that Final Four game. With the talent now assembled for the 2017-18 season, they may not have that losing feeling again for quite some time.