This has been one of the most challenging seasons in recent memory for the UConn Women’s basketball team. Injuries on top of injuries have continually altered plans and projections for this year’s squad and led to many situations fans are not used to seeing with the Huskies. The season has been filled with uncommon occurrences: their lowest top-25 ranking in 14 years, tied for the most loses since 2011-2012 (5), and their first conference loss after 169 straight conference wins. All of the adversity and challenges have led to this moment as they await their NCAA Tournament seeding. Healthier than they have been in months and poised to be a #2 seed, it feels like UConn has another trophy within their reach.
Despite all the hurdles to overcome this year, most may be a blessing in disguise. In an ideal world, they don’t deal with the plethora of injuries throughout the season, but it has allowed a lot of players to get more playing time and attention than they would have otherwise, especially the star-studded freshman class. The loss of star Paige Bueckers with a knee injury was the biggest hit in December and really forced others to step into the role of go-to playmaker. One of the bigger surprises for me was freshman Caroline Ducharme’s rise this year offensively. If you had told me before the season that the Milton, MA native would be the 3rd leading scorer on this stacked team I would not have believed you. There was a stretch in December and January where she was arguably the best player on the team and was hitting big shots every night. With all the hype around Azzi Fudd, I expected her to be the freshman who shone brightest. Fudd had a great year and settled in with a few big games, but like others, the injury bug bit her and she didn’t get a full season. Fudd had back-to-back 25+ point games in February against Villanova (a loss) and Tennesee (a win) where she showed everyone that with a little more experience, she could be great.
The combo of the young stars Ducharme and Fudd was impressive at times and their development was critical this year despite being more accelerated than the original plan, but what makes this team so powerful and scary in the NCAA Tournament (besides being healthy) is their seniors. When it comes time to make the right play late in an important NCAA Tournament game, having the experience of two senior guards, Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook, to make the right decision and two veteran forwards, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Dorka Juhasz, the team is in great hands. The roster went from depleted and very thin to extremely deep in a few short weeks. While this is clearly the less challenging of the two scenarios, it will be interesting to see how Geno Auriemma manages playing time in the tournament.
While it depends on the matchup who is actually on the floor, to have experienced talent mixed with the young and hopefully fresh legs will be critical. With four freshman or sophomore guards on the team, Paige Bueckers, Nika Muhl, Ducharme, and Fudd, there is a lot of young energy ready to go. Bueckers, if feeling 100%, should be super fresh given all the time she missed, which could benefit the Huskies deep in games. The craziest part of breaking down the roster? I haven’t even mentioned Aaliyah Edwards yet and she’s a critical sophomore presence inside for the Huskies who had double figures scoring in 5 of the team’s last 8 games and was third on the team in total rebounding this year (behind Nelson-Ododa and Juhasz). The depth on this team for this year’s tournament run is impressive.
As long as health is on their side, UConn should be able to march deep into the tournament this year and perhaps find themselves in yet another final four. They have all the components of a championship caliber team, but with very few games this season with the entire roster available to Geno Auriemma, there are questions. For me, the only thing that can get in UConn’s way is their lack of experience playing together as a full team and how the rotations are handled. There were glimpses of that more recently, but with Bueckers playing fairly limited minutes. I’m guessing come tournament time, Paige will be playing more and unleashed (especially deeper in the run). If there is any coach in the country that can figure that the right balance for his players it’s Geno, but in a high-pressure, close tournament game, that inexperience playing as one unit could rear it’s head. I, for one, am expecting to be watching the Huskies the first week of April in Minneapolis.