Geno Auriemma is approaching his 35th season as coach of the UConn women’s basketball program, but this year’s team brings a challenge he has not faced in quite some time.
The Huskies’ 2020–21 roster is made up of seven new players, a feat that has not occurred in the program since the 1988–89 season. The new squad will be one of the youngest teams in UConn’s history, with no seniors among it.
In some ways, the occurrence is one of coincidence. The last time the Huskies had seven new players on a roster took place the same season the program won its first Big East championship, 31 years ago. This year, the women’s basketball program makes its return to the conference after seven seasons in the AAC.
Though UConn took a break from the Big East, no team has come close to the program’s dominance in the conference in its stead. The Huskies have 18 Big East tournament titles to their name, last winning in 2012. DePaul and St. John’s are tied for second all-time with four titles apiece.
“This is a basketball league,” Auriemma said at Big East Media Day. “It’s not like we’re entering into a league that doesn’t know anything about success. Obviously, we’ve raised the profile of the Big East because of who we are… and I’m sure they appreciate that. I think as the years go on, each school is going to say, ‘Why can’t we do that?’
“I truly believe in my heart in this conference, basketball is a passion of the ADs, of the presidents, it’s the DNA of the schools in this league. It’s why it’s great to be in this league.”
The No. 3 Huskies, coming off a 29–3 season and AAC championship, enter the new season without top contributors in graduated seniors Crystal Dangerfield, Molly Bent, Evelyn Adebayo, Kyla Irwin and Batouly Camara. Big East Preseason Player of the Year Christyn Williams has taken ownership of leading the new-look roster alongside junior forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa
“We [Williams and Nelson-Ododa] have been taking up that leadership role,” Williams said. “It’s a lot more responsibility, it’s been different. The younger players have a willingness to learn, and are competitive. They’ve made it easier for us.”
Williams enters the season as one of the top players to watch in women’s basketball. The Huskies’ third-highest leading scorer last season, averaging 14.6 points per game, Williams’s experience will play a large role in the Huskies’ potential. Joining Williams in holding down the veteran new core is Nelson-Ododa, who will continue to provide a key presence on the boards, while redshirt junior Evina Westbrook will make her return to the court after missing over a year recovering from knee surgery.
For as much unfamiliarity there is regarding UConn’s experience level and surroundings, there are signs of normality in the form of the Huskies’ unrivaled recruiting. The program is welcoming point guard Paige Bueckers, the top-ranked prospect in the 2020 recruiting class, and will add No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd in 2021.
Of course, UConn is no stranger to highly-touted talent. Bueckers follows in the footsteps of former top recruits in Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore and Sue Bird, to name a few, but she knows her legacy at Storrs will not take shape until she takes the court alongside her teammates.
“I haven’t even done anything yet, I haven’t even stepped foot on a college court,” Bueckers said. “I have a lot to prove. I have a lot to work on.”
So far, though, Buckers has lived up to standards, with Auriemma calling her “really, really good.” On a team with a total of six freshmen, Buckers has been trying to find her voice as a leader among the group. As a facilitator, the Preseason Big East Freshman of the Year is trying to feed off her upperclassmen in Williams and Nelson-Ododa to be a guiding force among the incoming class.
“I found that I have the ball in my hands a lot, so I need to use my voice offensively and defensively,” Bueckers said. “I’m a freshman, but I can still help lead this team because we’re really young… We have six freshmen, there has to be a leader in that group as well.”
Bueckers has made it clear that the judgement of her rookie season will be defined by the Huskies’ success as a whole. Individual achievements mean nothing in the scope of a season and a program as storied as the one she is entering.
“I hate losing, so success for me is winning in everything,” Bueckers said. “Being a better player, being a better teammate. Doing whatever coach and teammates need me to do to win, team chemistry… all that will go into winning on the court.”
As Auriemma has noted, Bueckers is not going to single-handedly come to UConn and lead the team to a championship. As of October, the longtime coach admitted that the chemistry on the court is not as strong as it is off it. The team is navigating an unusual offseason in the age of COVID-19 with pressure coming in many forms, but Auriemma works to keep a lighthearted atmosphere.
“When you look back, none of [the past players] have ever faced the kind of glare that exists in a world of social media of this day and age,” Auriemma said. “Even when Stewie [Breanna Stewart] came out, it wasn’t like it is today. One thing all those players have in common, they are confident, really confident… My strategy always has been to let it go, make fun of it, make light of it. I try to make it that, ‘Hey, I don’t know what the big fuss is all about.’”
Dominance is expected of UConn in women’s basketball, and though the roster will be among the youngest Auriemma has coached, expectations do not waver. The Huskies have not won a national championship since 2016, and the drought—though considered short among most program’s standards—is the their longest in over a decade.
A return to the Big East may be the boost the team needs, youth movement and all. Williams, Bueckers and the Huskies are ready to face the challenges of a COVID-impacted season head-on.
“I’m ready to play,” Bueckers said. “You can put us anywhere and we’re going.”