College Sports

Five unanswered questions for the UConn women’s basketball team as official practices get underway

In turning the calendar to October, we found ourselves one month closer to basketball season. But preseason action is about to be underway, with the UConn women's team officially beginning practice Oct. 7 and the American Athletic Conference Media Day and First Night scheduled for the week after.

Here are five unanswered questions about this year's Huskies team going into the 2019-20 season.

Will transfer Evina Westbrook be eligible to play this season?

UConn fans have been restless, to say the least, about the status of Evina Westbrook's transfer waiver. The former Tennessee guard transferred to Storrs this offseason following the firing of coach Holly Warlick, and the NCAA remains quiet regarding the status of the waiver. Two transfers from Georgia Tech were recently cleared to play for Louisville, but since the NCAA handles these requests on a case-by-case basis, there is, for now, no knowing the timing or ultimate decision of Westbrook's request.

While UConn was initially confident that Westbrook would be deemed eligible for the 2019-20 season, the NCAA tightened its transfer guidelines over the summer. If Westbrook is approved to immediately play, the Huskies will look for her to bring the scoring and ball-distributing finesse that she exhibited at Tennessee, where she scored a team-leading 14.9 points per game and notched 5.3 assists in her sophomore year. She could gain the fifth and final starting spot, although, with so many other new additions to the team, there are a lot of unknowns regarding who plays well together and who is ready to be a major, regular contributor.

Can sophomores Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa step up?

With the departure of Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson to the WNBA, the Huskies lost the top scoring duo in program history, which accounted for 45% of the team's scoring in 2018-19. Obviously Crystal Dangerfield, the only returning senior starter on this year's squad, and junior Megan Walker will assume major on- and off-court leadership responsibilities, but not everything will fall on that pair. As two returning contributors that showed great promise in their freshman campaigns, Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa will be looked upon to provide stability and productivity as the team works to incorporate all its new pieces and find its identity in the post-Collier/Samuelson era.

Coming off a summer full of international basketball competition, Williams, one of UConn's three returning starters, is expected to have a breakout year and help the Huskies make up for Collier and Samuelson's lost scoring production. Her classmate Nelson-Ododa, who just returned from competing with Team USA at the FIBA AmeriCup, played the most of any bench player last season (14.0 minutes per game) and is likely to step into a starting role this year. At 6'5, she provides some necessary size inside, but the Huskies will need her to up her physicality and consistency in finishing around the rim.

How much depth will this year's team have?

Fans were concerned during the offseason when, following the transfers of all but one of Auriemma's 2017 recruits, the program was, at one point left, with only eight scholarship players, including incoming freshman Aubrey Griffin. Auriemma ultimately filled in the remaining roster spots, with Polish player Anna Makurat, graduate transfer Evelyn Adebayo (Murray State), and Westbrook from Tennessee. All are promising additions, with freshman Griffin already receiving rave reviews, while Adebayo and Westbrook boast prior experience playing collegiately, and Makurat playing internationally.

Besides Dangerfield, Walker, Williams, and Nelson-Ododa, Kyla Irwin is the only returning player who saw more than 10 minutes per game of action last year. And if Westbrook is ruled ineligible, roster depth and who figures into Auriemma's rotation become even more important. All eyes will be on Adebayo, Griffin, and Makurat to see how they can adjust to playing among and against the best in Division I basketball. If senior Batouly Camara can remain healthy, she could also serve as a reserve off the bench.

How will the rest of the field look?

This season, UConn is looking to win its first national championship since it won four straight from 2013-2016; since then, South Carolina, Notre Dame, and Baylor have clinched titles, signifying a basketball field with growing parity. Besides those three champions, other teams like Mississippi State, Oregon, and Louisville have asserted themselves as some of the nation's best, and early preseason rankings for this season are high on programs such as Texas A&M, Maryland, Stanford, and Oregon State.

How other teams perform throughout the season will affect UConn's place in the rankings and, eventually, its seeding in the NCAA tournament. But most importantly for the Huskies, they'll have the opportunity to play several of these top teams in non-conference play. UConn will host Baylor and Oregon (two of last year's Final Four teams) as well as Notre Dame before traveling to South Carolina in early February. Those matchups will provide a UConn team that some may not have high expectations for with a big opportunity to prove itself as one of the top handful of teams in the country in what should be a competitive field.

Could this be the year before 'the year'?

During a keynote speech at a charity event last week, Auriemma told guests that this season's team would be "really good" but would have to get lucky to win a national championship. He then gave a tongue-in-cheek prediction that his teams would go undefeated in the three years after this season.

Obviously, the program enters every season with the goal, if not expectation, of winning a national championship. Even if the Huskies don't win one this season, marking the fourth-straight year without one, that A) should not indicate a "failure" and B) may be a footnote compared to what's to come.

Auriemma's 2020 commitments include No. 1 recruit Paige Bueckers and top European prospect Nika Muhl. Auriemma loses one starter after this season (Dangerfield) and one the year after (Walker); but, he will have three years (including this season) to get the most out of his time with Williams and Nelson-Ododa, all the while getting two years of eligibility from Westbrook and developing his incoming freshmen classes. There's a lot that could happen between then and now, but if we can assume a hint of truth in Auriemma's remarks, something special could indeed be in the works.

  Comments