STORRS, Conn. (AP)UConn has not had seven first-year players on its roster since back in 1988, the year the Huskies won the first of their 18 Big East titles.
No. 3 Connecticut returns this season to the league it helped build with a young, but talented team after playing seven years in the American Athletic Conference without a conference loss.
The Huskies did lose star Megan Walker in the offseason. She entered the WNBA a year earlier than expected. That leaves UConn with no seniors, four returning players, six freshman and Evina Westbrook, who sat out last year after transferring from Tennessee.
It’s a young roster, but one that is expected to have the Huskies competing not only for a 19th Big East title, but a 12th national championship.
”The younger guys have been so good,” said junior Christyn Williams, the Big East’s preseason player of the year. ”They have a willingness to learn and they listen and are very competitive. It’s been good, but they’ve made it easier for us.”
Williams has taken over as a team leader, along with Westbrook and fellow junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
”We’re really going to rely on them heavily for a lot of things, on and off the court,” coach Geno Auriemma said. ”Those three are going to be a big focal point for our team and how well they play will determine what kind of season we have.”
But the focus of fans likely will be on freshman guard Paige Bueckers (pronouced BEHK-ers), last year’s consensus national high school player of the year. The conference’s preseason freshman of the year has already been compared to former UConn greats such as Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart.
”I haven’t done anything yet, I’ve not even stepped on a college court,” she said. ”So, I have a lot to prove and just a lot to work on.”
Here are some other points of emphasis for the Huskies this season:
THE OTHER FRESHMEN
Auriemma expects several members of his large freshmen class will make contributions immediately. Aaliyah Edwards, a 6-foot-3 forward from Ontario will give the Huskies depth in the front court.
Nika Muhl, a 5-10 guard from Croatia could also see playing time. They are joined by 6-5 Piath Gabriel, 5-11 guard Mir McLean, and 5-8 walk-on Autumn Chassion,
”There are times that Aaliyah and Nika look like they’ve been playing college basketball for awhile. They fit right in, Auriemma said. ”They slide right in. So Paige, Nika, and Aaliyah mix really well with our returning players. Mir, once in awhile, Piath less, Autumn less. But everyone has gotten better.”
Westbrook is one of the biggest question marks for the Huskies. She started 64 games at Tennessee, where she averaged 14.9 points and 5.3 assists per game as a sophomore. But, she is coming off two knee surgeries during her transfer year and has not played a game since March of 2019.
The Big East is a very different conference from the one that split in 2013 and no longer includes traditional rivals such as Notre Dame or Syracuse.
After going 139-0 against the AAC competition, Auriemma is expecting more competitive games in the Big East, which has sent at least two teams to the NCAA Tournament every year since the breakup.
”It’s absolutely going to lift us,” said DePaul coach Doug Bruno, whose team won five league titles in UConn’s absence. ”But this Big East, since the realignment, has been as tough as the old Big East. It’s a great league.”
OUT OF CONFERENCE
UConn is maintaining its tradition of playing a tough non-conference schedule despite the pandemic.
The Huskies will open the season in the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Challenge at Mohegan Sun on Nov. 28 against Quinnipiac and then likely No. 6 Mississippi State in the finals. UConn also will take on No. 5 Louisville at Mohegan Sun on Dec. 4.
They have a home game against South Carolina and will visit Baylor and Tennessee. The Huskies are scheduled to play 20 conference games.