If one thing is certain about what we can expect from this year’s women’s basketball team, it is that we have no idea what to expect. The Huskies brought in five new freshmen — the second-best recruiting class in the nation according to ESPNw — and are without a senior on the team for the first time in 17 years. But while this may not lead to the same success we’ve seen in seasons past, head coach Geno Auriemma says there is still a lot to look forward to this year.
“Like [associate head coach Chris Dailey] said, we may not win as many games as we did last year. But we’re going to enjoy coaching this group, that’s for sure,” Auriemma said in a Zoom call Wednesday. “There’s a certain vibe that the young guys have brought that’s distinctly different. Distinctly.”
This “vibe” Auriemma is referring to is that of high intensity and competition within the team from top to bottom. With returners like Christyn Williams and Olivia-Nelson Ododa leading the way and newcomers, Aaliyah Edwards, Mir McLean, Piath Gabriel and No. 1 recruit Paige Bueckers eager to make an impact, this team is packed with talent and potential.
“One strength I see is a competitiveness,” Auriemma said. “They enjoy trying to get something done as a group; they mix very well as a group. You can definitely tell who the young guys are and who the returning guys are, but there’s a meshing that’s happened.”
Particularly at the guard position, this is as stacked a group as UConn has had in recent years, with Williams, Bueckers, Evina Westbrook, Anna Makurat and company all ready to fight for the minutes they deserve. Bueckers said the competition has been great, as having this much talent surrounding her drives everyone to work harder.
“Just knowing that if one person messes up, we have one person off the bench that’s just as good stepping in makes things extra competitive,” Bueckers said in the Zoom call. “Knowing that we’ve gotta bring our best in every drill, every workout and every rep makes it a lot more fun and competitive, so I think we all like that.”
Bueckers comes in with the expectations to have a Breanna Stewart-type impact during her time at UConn, a difficult task to undertake. But even with all eyes on her, she has found a way to block out the hype and continues to work as hard as anyone in the gym to improve her game.
“You’d think someone this famous, somebody that has all this, would take it for granted, [but] she’s in the gym all the time and the [other] kids know it,” Auriemma said. “Don’t get me wrong, she knows she’s good, and that is part of being good. She knows there are things she can do that are kind of unique and she has fun with it.”
That precedent set by Bueckers and Williams is echoed by the bigs, who have also shown great work ethic and drive throughout the offseason. Auriemma had high praise for Nelson-Ododa, who has become an excellent leader as one of the longest tenured members of this team, while freshmen Edwards has been turning heads early. Williams even went as far as to compare her game to that of UConn alum Napheesa Collier.
“She does have that same competitiveness that Pheesa had,” Auriemma said of Edwards. “She plays hard like Pheesa did, she has a lot of energy like Pheesa did, she has a motor like Pheesa had. She goes at both ends, offensively, defensively, rebounding the ball [and] getting to the basket. In terms of their makeup, their motor and how hard they go, yeah, she has a lot of Phee’s qualities… Now if she could develop her game to match Pheesa’s game, then we’re onto something.”
“They all want to be really aggressive and I really like that”
As for what Edwards thinks of her own game, she also mentioned her drive and desire to compete are some of her best qualities.
“For me, my strength is being a competitor, I have that competitive mindset that I feel like cannot only help me as an individual player but also as a team player,” Edwards said. “Just being relentless and doing the little things [like] rebounding, going after those loose balls, being a playmaker but also whenever I get the chance to get myself an and-one or a little pull-up jump shot.”
This sentiment of being competitors is shared by the whole team, with Auriemma noticing that different vibe he mentioned even more in the team’s most recent practice.
“They all want to be really aggressive and I really like that,” Auriemma said. “They all want to score, they all want to steal the ball, they all wanna go rebound. I just had a conversation with Anna [Makurat] today and I said, ‘what the hell’s the hurry’ and she said ‘I don’t wanna waste any possessions’ like we’ve gotta get something done right now, so there’s a good feeling about that.”
This year’s team is going to look different. They are young, raw and pretty inexperienced at the college level, but one thing that is certain is that they are going to compete. Whether they win the National Championship, or even as many games as they did last year, this team is going to be an exciting one to watch when the season finally begins in just over a month.