When you’re a top recruit and you commit to Geno Auriemma’s prestigious UConn team, you join an elite club. This club features Rebecca Lobo, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart, to just name a few. I could name dozens more.
“If you’re a kid and you put it out there that you want to go to [the University of] Connecticut, then you better live up to it. It better not be ‘I want to go to Connecticut and get all of the things that Connecticut kids get, but I’m scared to death that I’m not going to be good enough.’ Then guess what? You aren’t going to make it here,” Auriemma said. “So the kids that we get, when they come here they have to come to practice every day and look up at that wall. Half of them probably say, ‘What am I getting myself into? Every day I’m going to be compared to them.’ That makes you play really good every day, because every day you have to live up to that.”
Megan Walker, the No. 1 recruit of the class of 2017, is next. The first half of UConn versus Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon will serve as the junior’s coronation.
She gashed the Irish for 19 points (8-of-13 from the field), eight rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block in the first half alone. Muffet McGraw and Co. had absolutely no answers for Walker. UConn led their most bitter rivals 52-25 at halftime.
“Her body looks different, she’s done some work there,” McGraw said. “She’s much more aggressive offensively. I think she’s looking for her shot more, and she’s shooting well.”
The most impressive part of Walker’s performance was that it seemed she could score from anywhere on the floor. Drives to the basket, post-ups, fastbreaks, midrange jumpers, 3-point shots, they were all falling.
“I try to go out there and just show what I got every night on the court,” Walker said.
With the win already in hand, we didn’t see as much of Walker in the second half. She finished the game with 26 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks.
This Notre Dame team doesn’t compare to the great teams that they have had in the past. Nonetheless, games against the Irish always have a tournament atmosphere and serve as a gut-check game for the Huskies.
“They’re not the usual Notre Dame team, but this game meant a lot to us as far as the history and we wanted to prove something,” Walker said. “They’re still Notre Dame, they’re still a rival to us. It doesn’t matter who’s on the team.”
Walker improved her game to this elite level with an offseason of hard work. Like McGraw said, she improved her body in the gym, she improved her jumper and ball handling, and developed a fantastic all-around game.
“A lot of times, players would say, ‘Well if I got enough touches, I would get 20 every night, just like Lou and Pheesa did.’ Well now we’re going to give you all of the touches you want, let’s see if you can produce every single night, and she [Walker] has,” Auriemma said.
Walker has scored 20 or more points five times this season, and has had 19 twice. Most importantly, she has No. 4 UConn standing tall at 8-0.
With Naphesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson graduating, the Huskies knew that there were going to be some big shoes to fill. So far this season, Walker has answered the call to action.
Through eight games, Walker is averaging 22.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game while shooting 48.5 and 48.8 percent from the field and from deep, respectively. Last season, Collier averaged 20.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
“You look around and you don’t see Lou [Samuelson] and you don’t see Phee [Collier], it’s just me, Christyn, Liv and Crystal,” Walker said. “A lot of it comes with being older, and a lot comes with confidence as well.”
Auriemma explained UConn’s everlasting stretch of greatness as a cycle. He brings in these top tier recruits like Walker, grooms them behind the all-time greats that are already established on the team, then once those superstars graduate, it’s time for those top prospects to become the new stars.
“When Lou and Napheesa were freshmen, nobody even knew their names,” Auriemma said. “Then when those guys left, Napheesa and Lou said ‘you know what, we need to step up and fill that role. It isn’t going to happen just because we’re here.’ Megan has done that.”
McGraw, whose rivalry with Auriemma dates back to 1987, understands the process.
“I think she’s [Walker] very much improved. She’s not in the shadow anymore, now is her chance,” McGraw said.
Stewart’s senior year at UConn, Samuelson and Collier were freshmen. While “in the shadow,” they averaged 11.0 and 6.8 points per game, fourth and seventh on the team, respectively. The season after Stewart graduated, they took the top two spots on the team in scoring with over 20 points per game apiece, plus Collier increased her rebounding rate from 5.2 per game as a freshman to 9.1 as a sophomore.
“When we lost Stewie and that whole crew, did we know that Pheesa and Lou as sophomores were going to dominate the country and be First Team All-Americans out of nowhere? No, but we certainly knew they had the potential,” Auriemma said.
Stewart left, so then it was Collier and Samuelson’s time. Collier and Samuelson are gone. Now, it’s Walker’s time.
“We don’t have any returning All-Americans, so we could’ve just as easily lost at Ohio State, or at Seton Hall or something of that nature. But Megan’s playing like she’s a First Team All-American player,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know anybody that’s playing better than her in the country.”
Walker, currently the biggest cog in the well-oiled UConn basketball machine, understands the potential impact she can have. Every day at practice, she looks up to that wall and sees the all-time great Huskies, and recognizes that this is her opportunity to join those ranks.
“We’re playing for something bigger than ourselves. UConn is a tradition,” Walker said.
“There’s a lot left in her tank for what she can do. She’s just beginning to scratch the surface, and I’m really proud of her. She’s worked really, really hard,” Auriemma said.
Lobo, Taurasi, Moore, Stewart. Now Walker. Then in a couple of years, the next group of recruits will go to practice and look up at the wall.
There, they will see Megan Walker.