Missing the Final Four for the first time since 2007 last season, head coach Geno Auriemma has one goal in mind for the UConn women’s basketball team: “shut the f–k up and win games.” Although just an exhibition, that tour starts at Gampel Pavilion when the Huskies host the NCAA Division-II Southern Connecticut State Owls on Saturday.
UConn ranks second in the Associated Press’ preseason Top 25 poll behind the defending national champion LSU Tigers, but the primary storylines heading into the 2023-24 season revolve around Paige Bueckers’ return after missing last season with a torn ACL. Bueckers, who will play in Saturday’s exhibition, averaged 18 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists and won AP Player of the Year as a freshman across her first two seasons in Storrs, Connecticut.
Azzi Fudd missed 22 games last season with a knee injury but still put up 15.1 points per game with 34 three-pointers. Despite a hot start to her sophomore campaign that included consecutive 32-point outings, Fudd never looked the same after her knee injury in early December and finished the year with no more than three triples made in every postseason contest. Bueckers and Fudd being in the same backcourt should not shine the spotlight away from senior guard Nika Mühl, who broke Sue Bird’s single-season record with 284 assists last year. Dishing out more assists than shots she attempted per game, Mühl also took home her second straight Big East Defensive Player of the Year with 50 steals and 122 defensive rebounds.
Caroline Ducharme, meanwhile, could be one of the team’s X-factors. An All-Big East Second Team selection as a freshman, neck stiffness and a concussion limited Ducharme’s abilities in the 23 games she played during her sophomore year. Putting in the work during practice and earning a spot on the Cheryl Miller Award watch list awarded to the nation’s top small forward, expect a bounce back season from the junior guard after she averaged 7.4 points and 4.1 rebounds as a sophomore.
Given the talent that the Huskies have at guard, graduate student Aubrey Griffin will likely take the forward spot opened via Dorka Juhász’s departure. Griffin did it all with 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while forcing 50 steals and shooting 53.5% from the field, but what she lacks in the attention she receives she makes up for through her grit. Down to seven players in their game against the Princeton Tigers when Mühl suffered a concussion, Griffin stepped up with 29 points and 10 rebounds on a night where she went a perfect 11-11 from the field.
Senior forward Aaliyah Edwards also locked it down defensively last season, grabbing 234 total rebounds and rejecting 41 shots on top of leading the team with 16.6 points per game at a 58.9% clip. Notably having a 23-point, 20-rebound night against the Creighton Bluejays in late December and recording 14 double-doubles, Edwards became UConn’s first All-American forward since Megan Walker while also earning Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors last season. With Juhász in the WNBA, where she earned a spot on the All-Rookie Team with the Minnesota Lynx, the senior forward could exceed the numbers she posted during her All-American campaign as the team’s primary post player.
The Huskies’ frontcourt may be unproven behind Edwards and Griffin, but that does not mean someone will step up and serve a significant role off the bench. Sophomore Ayanna Patterson and junior Amari DeBerry both averaged 2.2 points last season and bring unique qualities that can help UConn defensively. DeBerry swatted 18 shots in 26 games and can be an intimidating presence down the middle while Patterson attacked the paint with 44 defensive rebounds.
Expect a breakout sophomore season from the Indiana native in an expanded role, even if she is not playing in Saturday’s exhibition, but do not be surprised if redshirt freshman Ice Brady introduces herself to the college basketball world. The San Diego native has not yet played a game at the collegiate level after missing last year with a knee injury, but averaged 20.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks during her senior season at Cathedral Catholic High School in California.
No player transferred into the program, but the Huskies welcomed three freshmen into their ranks. Preseason Big East Freshman of the Year KK Arnold enters as ESPN’s No. 6-ranked recruit for the class of 2023 after a four-year career that included a state championship and three Associated Press Wisconsin State Player of the Year awards. Ashlynn Shade ranks 15th, averaging 24 points and nine boards during her senior season at La Lumiere School in Indiana. Do not sleep on Qadence Samuels despite her national ranking at 41; her 17.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a junior in high school make her a dynamic piece on both ends of the floor.
Southern Connecticut State went 17-11 in Kate Lynch’s eighth season at the helm, finishing tied for sixth in the Northeast 10 Conference at 11-9. NE10 All-Conference Second Team selection Zoë Amalbert, Isabella Santoro and Delaney Connors all graduated, but the Owls brought back forward Katie Williamson for her senior season. While not a member of last year’s NE10 All-Defensive Team, Williamson led the team with 6.9 rebounds per game and 31 blocks.
Junior forward Ashley Evans is the only other returner from last year’s starting lineup, but expect a major jump from her sophomore campaign where she averaged five points and 3.5 boards in 26 games. Adding graduate guards Julianna Bonilla from Marist and Makenzie Helms from Quinnipiac alongside projected starter Connors (8.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG in 2022-23) gives Southern Connecticut State the pieces they need to compete in the NE10.
UConn’s 2023-24 season unofficially tips off at 1 p.m. EDT on UConn+. Fans who do not have UConn+ can catch the game on WWAX via WFSB Channel 3.