The Connecticut Huskies are finally back on top after returning to the Big East Conference for the first time since 2012. Selection Sunday for the NCAA tournament on March 14 will determine if both teams will hold the top seeds for their regions.
The Huskies began their season with their youngest roster of players since 1988. The largest freshman recruiting class with six freshmen and one early addition from the class of 2024 make up the majority of the bench. This will also be the first time in the program in years that head coach Geno Auriemma will not graduate any players.
What makes the Huskies the number one team this season? Freshman Paige Bueckers and the unstoppable force she brought to the court in her debut season. Bueckers was ranked the number one player by ESPN for the class of 2020. She was named the Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year and named in the running for the Nancy Lieberman Award.
The Huskies worked hard to stay the Big East Conference champions after almost a decade in the American Athletic Conference. On March 8, they won the tournament and were named the number one team in the Divison. Bueckers won the Big East Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, All-Freshman Squad, and All-Big East First Team.
Bueckers could not have done it without some help from her recruitment class. Freshmen Aaliyah Edwards, Nika Muhel, Autumn Chassion, Mir McLean, and Piath Gabriel all brought their own talent to Storrs. 6’3 Edwards stood out not because her neon yellow and purple braids. Edwards came off the bench and proved to be the big powerhouse the Huskies have been missing. She was named the Big East Sixth Woman of the Year award.
Coach Auriemma only had four returning athletes from last year’s roster. Redshirt-junior, Evina Westbrook, finally got the recognition she has been waiting for after two seasons on the bench. Westbrook has sat on Auriemma’s bench since she transferred from Tennessee in 2019. She, alongside junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa, started in every game in this season. Junior Christyn Williams had another successful season as a starter this season and was also named to the Big East First Team.
Sophomores Anna Makurat and Aubrey Griffin are some of the hidden stability players this season. After a stress fracture, Makurat was out for a month and came back during the conference tournament. Makurat is a key 3-point shooter and guard for the Huskies. The team had to adjust to the setback but Griffin became the seventh woman for the team.
A first for Coach Auriemma since Brianna Pulido was a walk-on player. Freshman Autumn Chassion worked hard to earn her position on the team and made a few appearances this season. Many walk-ons do not get playing opportunities at UConn till the end of their careers if they stay with the team. Chassion got the chance to make eight appearances and earn a few points along the way. Freshman Saylor Poffenbarger joined the Huskies bench a semester early after she finished her high school career in December. She has made ten appearances for the Huskies.
With such a young team, Auriemma was able to work for his team with a number of player combinations to test who worked best together. I have watched UConn women’s basketball for over a decade now and I have picked up on a few of Geno’s strategies. The first to play your starters for the first three quarters with using substitutions only for injuries or foul trouble. Those five players are built to last for 30 to 40 minutes of game time.
The next is to choose your sixth, seventh, and eighth woman wisely. The starters this season are Bueckers, Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook, Williams, and Muhl. Nelson-Ododa usually gets into foul trouble by the end of the first quarter and Edwards will come in. Williams is the second to do this so Griffin or Makurat take over. Westbrook typically gets her second foul before halftime and McLean will make her appearance.
For the rest of the squad, Auriemma chooses how he wants to incorporate those players effectively. Poffenbarger and Gabirel will retire Bueckers and Nelson-Ododa in the final quarter. Chassion is one of those players who can come in for any guard but will be used only when needed.
Auriemma is known to not play his final four players until the last few minutes of every game. This is a game and tournament-winning strategy. It has worked for the Huskies since Auriemma took the helm in 1985. On March 14, the NCAA announced the bracket for the tournament. UConn is ranked seventh in the East section. Their ranking is lower than anticipated because they did not play as many big teams that they would in a normal season. The NCAA also only chose 15 teams in each region instead of 16.
The interactive bracket is informative as it is fun. You can view statistics between matched teams and see how two teams would match up. UConn is set to win the championship on my bracket and I cannot wait for the Huskies to win another title. Fingers crossed!