Over the past 25 years, UConn has become synonymous with the sport of women’s basketball. With 11 National Championships, 20 Final Fours, six perfect seasons, 51 combined conference championships and some of the greatest players in the history of the sport, UConn’s success has truly been incredible.
But this season will be a little different here in Storrs. First of all, the chances of the season starting on time in November are very slim. But whenever the Huskies do take the court, it will be a new-look team with no seniors and six freshmen, who will make up the majority.
Normally, having such a young team would be a little scary, but given head coach Geno Auriemma’s initial comments on the freshmen, they could be primed to make a serious impact right away.
“I’m getting to know the freshmen really well,” Auriemma said. “They’re a good group. I really like them a lot. They have a great way about them. They’re competitive as hell. They really are. I’m thinking back to some freshman classes that we’ve had here, and I’m thinking, ‘My god, this group is like a breath of fresh air.’”
Pretty high praise from a guy who knows a thing or two about coaching good players. So let’s meet these freshmen that Geno is so high on.
You can’t talk about this freshman class and not start with Paige Bueckers, the No. 1 recruit from her high school class. She’s a 5-foot-11 guard from Edina, Minnesota, with some amazing skills and still untapped potential.
During her time at Hopkins High School, she became an internet sensation for her impressive handles, flashy passes and consistent jump shot. Once she committed to UConn, she was immediately penned as the next great husky.
This is definitely unfair, as she has been compared to all-time greats like Diana Taurasi and Breanna Stewart before even playing a game. But Bueckers said she just kind of tunes out all the hype surrounding her.
“I hear it, but I don’t really try to pay attention to it and I don’t really take it to heart,” Bueckers said. “I know for me, I haven’t even played a game. I’ve barely even practiced here. Those expectations are crazy for people to put on me even though I haven’t even played a minute in college yet. So I don’t really pay attention to that stuff and I just focus on working hard and being the best player I can be.”
Bueckers understands the standard for UConn women’s basketball, and being the team-oriented player she is, her main goal is to win as many National Championships as she can.
“It’s just never a plan for me to lose,” Bueckers said. “I’m not gonna go out and say I only want to win one or two. I want to win four. Everybody should want to win four.”
Bueckers said she has connected with several UConn alums — including Stewart, who succeeded in winning four National Championships — who have told her that freshman year will be a tough adjustment, but as long as she’s coachable and soaks everything in, she will thrive.
Auriemma is already impressed with the improvements she’s made in the first few workouts, so if that continues, she’ll be a special player.
“How good is she? Put it this way, I’m glad we have her,” Auriemma said. “There’s some things that she does that other players wish they could do.”
The next exciting UConn freshman is Aaliyah Edwards, a 6-foot-3 forward from Kingston, Ontario. She had a standout high school career at Crestwood Prep.
Edwards has been a fixture on Canadian national teams since she was 14, even playing with former UConn great Kia Nurse. She has a lot of impressive abilities on the basketball court, and she hopes to make the most of them while at UConn.
“I’m ready for the challenge,” Edwards said. “It’s one of the reasons why I came and chose UConn. The coaches and my teammates are gonna motivate me and push me to perform to my best potential.”
Edwards said she loves her team so far and she’s excited about what she and her freshman colleagues will be able to accomplish together.
“It’s great to come in with such a competitive and driven class,” Edwards said. “I know that all the other freshmen are like me. They value the same things. On the court, I believe that we’re gonna do some great things, not only for the team, but just for UConn in general, and I’m excited to see what that entails.”
Edwards said she looks forward to following in the footsteps of the greats who came before her and making her own legacy here at UConn.
Mir McLean is a 5-foot-11 guard from Baltimore, Maryland. She played her high school basketball at Roland Park Country School, where she said she had success but wasn’t really part of a true winning culture like the one here at UConn.
Based on her highlight reel, McLean should be another asset for the Huskies this season. She can score from just about anywhere on the court and is also active on the defensive end.
McLean believes she and the rest of the freshmen will make a big impact on the program.
“We really put high expectations on each other, and I think we’re gonna bring in a whole bunch of energy for the returners,” McLean said. “I’m really excited to see what we can do to drive the returners with our style of basketball versus their style … Coming in, I think we have a lot of energy and we have the main focus of winning. So I think that’s important that we’re all on the same page.”
Olivia Nelson-Ododa confirmed that McLean and Edwards specifically have really brought a fresh energy and work ethic to the team.
Outside of basketball, McLean is really interested in learning new languages and said her teammates Anna Makurat and Nika Muhl have started teaching her Polish and Croatian, respectively.
And speaking of Nika…
Nika Muhl might be the most underrated player in this class. The 5-foot-10 guard from Zagreb, Croatia, has some special skills that show up right away when you look at her film.
Her biggest asset to the team will probably be her shooting, especially from beyond the arc. But she’s also shown an ability to get her teammates involved and create opportunities for transition baskets with her defense.
Granted, this is a completely new situation for Muhl. It’s a new team in a new level of basketball in a new country. She knows it is going to be a major adjustment.
“This is all so overwhelming for me,” Muhl said. “It’s a big step in my career. It’s not next level, it’s like 10 levels above where I’ve been. I’m excited, I’m so blessed and I can’t wait to get to work with the team.”
Luckily, she said the team has been very welcoming to her, making her first few weeks on campus a great experience.
“It’s everything I thought it would be and much more,” Muhl said. “Just the girls and this group and this community. The first day when I came, I felt a part of the family and it’s been great so far. I’m enjoying it and having fun.”
Muhl has also had Makurat, a native of Poland, as a mentor to give her advice about adjusting to life in a country halfway across the world. Muhl is in a position similar to Makurat’s a year ago, so she said having that relationship has helped her as well.
As is the case with all the freshmen, the coaching staff will look to get the most out of Muhl during her time in the program. Muhl is already blown away with the hard work and dedication of Auriemma and his staff and said she is looking forward to learning all she can from them.
“The only thing I have to do is give 100%,” Muhl said.
Piath Gabriel is by far the tallest of the freshmen at 6-foot-5. She will almost definitely see some minutes at center when Nelson-Ododa needs a break.
UConn has struggled in recent years against bigger teams, so if Gabriel develops to the point where she can play alongside Nelson-Ododa, it would give the Huskies a very interesting “Twin Towers” package to run out there.
Gabriel is the only New Englander in the class as well, hailing from Manchester, New Hampshire. She played high school ball at Bradford Christian Academy. Gabriel said she already notices the faster pace and higher pressure at the college level compared to high school.
“For my first practice, yes I was nervous and I was intimidated,” Gabriel said. “But as we went through practice and as [the coaches] walk you through it and stuff, I wasn’t as nervous as I got to more practices because it’s more about improving. So I just know I got to learn.”
Gabriel noted that she has learned a lot especially while working in the post with the coaching staff.
Gabriel said she loves it at UConn so far and has gotten to know her teammates really well. A shy person by nature, Gabriel said her teammates have helped to open her up more.
Last but definitely not least is Autumn Chaisson, the newest member of the team. Chaisson is a 5-foot-8 walk-on who chose to come to UConn over several other lower D-I offers. She tried out and apparently made a good enough impression that she was rewarded with a spot on the team.
Chaisson said she has been an avid fan of UConn women’s basketball since she was 7 years old, citing the 2009 championship team as the team that made her fall in love with UConn and basketball.
“I’m super excited,” Chaisson said. “It’s always been a dream to play here, and when I was given this opportunity, I knew that it was something I had to jump on immediately. I’m super excited to be here, ready to work.”
Despite being a fan of UConn basketball, her main reason for choosing UConn was the strong academic programs. Chaisson was her class valedictorian at Lafayette Christian Academy in Lafayette, Louisiana. She wants to someday be a doctor and has already been in contact with multiple medical schools. Her goal while at UConn is to maintain a 4.0 GPA.
As a walk-on, Chaisson’s role may be more limited than those of her fellow freshmen, but she is willing to do whatever she can to help the team compete for and win National Championships.
“I’d like to continue to work hard and make my way into the rotation, hopefully,” Chaisson said. “Just be an asset to the team. Whatever they need, that’s what I would like to do. Whatever Coach demands from me, that’s what I want to do and just help in every way I can.”
So there you have it. The newest group of Huskies who are looking to add to a dynasty 25 years in the making. Auriemma seems as confident as ever that this group will lead UConn back to the top of the mountain.
“I think the freshmen are going to contribute immensely to what we’re doing,” he said. “Not just because they have to, but because they’re really good. We’re gonna surprise some people I think.”