After seven years and seven conference championships in the American Athletic Conference, the UConn Women’s Basketball team is returning to the Big East. Head coach Geno Auriemma is now faced with the task of guiding one of the youngest teams he’s ever coached to contention in the Big East for the first time since 2012-13, UConn’s last year in the conference. With a unique blend of familiar and new faces, Geno believes his team can do it.
Five seniors from the 2019 roster graduated while junior Crystal Dangerfield was selected by the Minnesota Lynx in the second round of the WNBA Draft. Now, UConn has seven new players joining the women’s team, six of whom are freshman, the other being junior transfer Evina Westbrook, who was named the USA Today National Player of the year in 2017. According to coach Auriemma, this particular group is reminiscent of the 1988 team. He said, “The last time we had seven new players was in 1988. We had a great year that year. We actually won the Big East Championship for the very first time.”
Among those seven new players is freshman Paige Bueckers, the 2020 Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year and 2019’s top-rated highschool recruit. There are naturally high expectations for Bueckers, but Auriemma suggested the team will rely more on the team’s upperclassmen for leadership, allowing the freshmen to settle into the team more naturally. “We’ve got a few returning players in Christyn [Williams] and Olivia [Nelson-Ododa]. They’re in their third year playing for us and they have the experience of playing in a lot of big games and winning a lot of big games. We’re gonna rely on them heavily for a lot of things on and off the court,” Auriemma said. “That’s always the key to a team’s success, what kind of leadership you’re getting from your upperclassmen. How well they play this season is gonna determine what kind of season we have.”
Williams, who averaged 14.6 points in her sophomore season a year ago, said that she is adjusting to her new role as a team-leader. “It’s a lot different from freshman and sophomore year. We’ve got a lot more responsibility this year. It’s been different but the younger [players] have been so good,” she said.
Though Auriemma deferred the pressure away from Bueckers, he did say that she has handled the spotlight well and expects the freshman to have a big role for the team. “Everybody knows about Paige. That’s what comes with being so highly recruited. Paige handles it great.” He added that “the other young players are all gonna contribute in their own way. There are times when Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl… sometimes they look like they’ve been playing college basketball for a while because they fit right in. Paige, Aaliya, Nika… they all mix really really well with our returning players.”
Bueckers acknowledges that she’s new to the college game, but added that she won’t back down from an opportunity to help the team. “I just need to focus on being a better teammate and being a better player and not focus on all the outside noise, cause I haven’t done anything yet. I haven’t even stepped foot on a college court so I have a lot to prove and a lot to work on,” she said. “I [will] have the ball in my hands a lot so I’m going to have to use my voice. I’m a freshman but I can still try to help lead this team.”