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UConn believes it has "something special" with this year's team

The Huskies have been restocking their talent over the last five years, will it finally pay off this season?

Photo: Ian Bethune

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UConn believes it has "something special" with this year's team

UConn women’s basketball is only through the very start of a new year with summer workouts over but hopes are already high for the upcoming campaign. In fact, they’ve been high ever since the last season ended.

Back in April — before he’d even seen his team on a court together — Geno Auriemma declared that next season will be UConn’s best chance to win a national title since 2016. After a month of workouts, the coach is still struggling to contain his optimism.

“I had a lot of people that saw [summer workouts] on film, say, ‘Wow, you guys got something special going on out there,’” Auriemma said at the UConn Coaches Road Show on June 28. “Knock on wood, we're pretty excited about it. We'll just put it that way.”

The reason for such excitement is a result of what the program’s been through over the last five years: The Huskies have gone through a rebuild of sorts. They haven’t fallen off like most do — multiple trips to the Final Four is still pretty good — but they’ve needed to restock the program’s talent level.

The drain first began in 2018 when Kia Nurse, Azura Stevens and Gabby Williams left for the WNBA. The next year, the core of Napheesa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield and Katie Lou Samuelson were enough to get the Huskies back to the Final Four with the help of a supporting cast that included a sophomore Megan Walker along with freshmen Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.

But when Collier and Samuelson graduated, UConn didn’t have ready-made replacements for the All-American caliber players. As a result, the Huskies struggled through a turbulent 2019-20 campaign in which they were comfortably beaten by the three top teams in the nation: Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina.

The NCAA Tournament didn’t happen that season due to the onset of COVID, but UConn probably wouldn’t have made it out of regionals if it did. That was the relative low point for the Huskies.

The following offseason is when the ascent back began. The team’s new core of Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Mühl arrived as freshmen while Evina Westbrook became eligible after transferring in from Tennessee to join a group of returners that featured Nelson-Ododa, Williams and Aubrey Griffin.

UConn returned to the Final Four and although it was upset by Arizona, Geno Auriemma felt good about the team’s future.

“I believe that what we learned this year through all the ups and downs is going to really benefit us for the next couple years, for sure,” he said after the loss. “I remember saying that in 2008. We played and we lost to Stanford in the semifinal. It was Maya Moore’s freshman year. I said, ‘We’ll be back. We went back and we were undefeated the next two seasons. I don’t think that’s going to happen but we’ll be back here sooner rather than later.”

The Huskies continued to stock up on talent, too. They didn’t lose a single contributor from the previous season and added two key freshmen in Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme as well as an important transfer in Dorka Juhász. UConn appeared to have all the pieces in place, only for injuries to intervene.

Still, the Huskies not only returned to the Final Four in 2022, they finally broke their losing streak in the national semifinal and reached the championship game. They didn’t have enough to get past South Carolina — especially since Juhász was out with a fractured wrist, Bueckers wasn’t at 100 percent and Fudd dealt with an illness — but going that far was an accomplishment itself.

2022-23 looked to be the year it all finally came together for UConn. Bueckers, Edwards and Mühl were now upperclassmen, Fudd and Ducharme had a full year under their belt, the team brought two top-five freshmen in Ice Brady and Ayanna Patterson, and added Lou Lopez Sénéchal out of Fairfield. The Huskies had the talent, experience and depth to be legitimate national title favorites.

Then injuries struck again. Bueckers went down with a torn ACL and Brady followed her onto the season-ending list with a dislocated patella. Fudd hurt her knee twice, Ducharme dealt with a concussion for most of the second half and Juhász missed a sizable chunk of time with a broken thumb.

As much as UConn persevered through the adversity through the season, it all came crashing down in a Sweet Sixteen loss to Ohio State. The Huskies finally reached their breaking point.

But even though both Juhász and Lopez Sénéchal exhausted their eligibility, the championship window remains open for UConn. Unlike the late 2010s, the Huskies are keeping their roster stacked with talent thanks to a highly-touted freshman class that includes three guards — KK Arnold, Ashlynn Shade and Qadence Samuels — and a post player — Jana El Alfy.

When healthy, the Bueckers, Edwards and Fudd have shown they can be All-American caliber players, Mühl is coming off breaking UConn’s single-game and season assists records while Ducharme, Griffin, Brady, Ayanna Patterson and the freshmen should all be contributors to varying degrees. There’s high-end talent, quality role players and depth at every spot.

“What we envisioned when we put these recruiting classes together…you're thinking, ‘Wow, we're really set up really, really good,” Auriemma said.

The Huskies still have question marks — the backcourt behind Edwards is still unproven, not to mention the looming threat of injuries — but every team does at this time of year.

Even still, this is what UConn has been building towards over the last half decade. The Huskies have done enough to put themselves in contention for a national title — just as they did each of the past two seasons.

Now, they just need some luck to go their way. If it does, UConn may truly have “something special” with this year’s team.

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