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Game Preview: Geno believes the Huskies are starting to "look like the UConn teams of old"
How to watch
Date: Monday, March 7
Time: 8:00 p.m. EST
Location: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT
Radio: UConn Sports Network (97.9 ESPN and affiliates)
Record: 23-7 (15-4 Big East)
Location: Villanova, Pennsylvania
Head coach: Denise Dillon (second season)
Geno believes the Huskies are starting to "look like the UConn teams of old"
UConn women’s basketball’s recruiting strategy is rather simple. At least, Geno Auriemma made it sound simple when he broke it down on Sunday.
“We used to have a pretty good plan and it worked all the time. We would try to recruit players that can score — and we certainly have been successful with that over the years — and then bitch at them every minute of every day to play defense. And they did,” he said.
Most teams hope to have one player who can contribute on both ends of the floor with everyone else either being generally offensive-minded or defensive-minded. UConn’s best teams rolled out five players who had the ability to score in bunches but also played lockdown defense. But Auriemma believes the program had lost that edge over the last few years.
“For a short period of time here recently, it's been missing,” he said. “That hasn't necessarily been there in the last four or five years.”
It’s ironic that in a season where the Huskies have been more like any other team at points — they lost a conference game for the first time in nine years, dropped out of the top 10 in the AP Poll for the first time since 2005 and lost five regular season games for the first time since the 2004-05 campaign — they’ve also started to look like a vintage UConn team. Auriemma can’t pin down exactly when that change occurred, but he knows it happened.
“This last month — maybe since the Marquette game at Marquette, the fourth quarter at that game, maybe since we lost the Villanova game here — there was a point in time that we started to look like the UConn teams of old,” he said.
That started on the defensive end. The Huskies had held their opponents under 40 points for four consecutive games until Marquette managed to score 51 in the Big East semifinal. Since the loss to Villanova (a span of nine games), they’ve allowed just 44.2 points per game.
In turn, stifling defense boosts UConn’s offense. Over that same stretch, the Huskies have scored 23.3 points off turnovers, which ranks in the 99th percentile nationally. They’ve also put 82.2 points per game and have won games by an average of 38.0 points per game. Since the win at Marquette, the margin of victory jumps up to 43.4.
Much of this recent success is a product of UConn’s struggles earlier in the season. The Huskies survived a “hell wave” of injuries, as Evina Westbrook described it, where everyone except Westbrook and Aaliyah Edwards missed at least one contest due to an ailment or illness. At one point, Westbrook, Christyn Williams and then-unproven freshman Caroline Ducharme were UConn’s only healthy guards.
Later on, Ducharme — who at that point had become the Huskies’ leading scorer since Paige Bueckers got hurt — went down with a head injury which forced freshman Azzi Fudd to step up. Now, UConn is fully healthy for really the first time all season which means the rotation runs nine players deep with everyone capable of going off on any given night. It makes the Huskies nearly impossible to defend.
“There's this feeling now that we know we're going to get [points], we just don't know from where,” Auriemma said. “For a while there, it was Paige in the beginning and then became Caroline and then it became Azzi and now we just know we're gonna get it. You just don't know where — which I guess that's a good thing.”
While the Huskies will still have to prove themselves against the top teams in the nation during the NCAA Tournament, they can only play whoever’s in front of them.
Plus, Auriemma often says he’s more focused on his team’s performance regardless of the opponent. And by all accounts — the numbers, metrics and eye test — UConn has saved its best basketball for March.
Scouting the Wildcats
On Feb. 9, Villanova handed UConn its first conference loss in nine years. The Wildcats won 72-69, though the final score was only that close because of a furious comeback by the Huskies in the last four minutes. Aside from that, Villanova never trailed and out-rebounded UConn 37-21. Olivia Nelson-Ododa became unavailable shortly before tip-off due to a groin injury while Caroline Ducharme sat out with a head injury as well.
The Huskies’ road matchup against the Wildcats on Jan. 7 was canceled due to COVID.
By the numbers
91.0 — Her Hoop Stats gives UConn a 91.0 percent chance of beating Villanova in the championship game.
15.7 — The Huskies are expected to win by a margin of 15.7 with a projected final score of 71.3-55.6.
1 — UConn and Villanova have met once before in the Big East Tournament finals when the Wildcats upset the Huskies 52-48 back in 2003. That’s the last time UConn lost a Big East Tournament game to a current member of the conference.
27 — The Huskies will go for their 27th conference tournament title on Monday and 20th in the Big East. UConn has won 54 conference championships overall.
28.5 — With a nine-player rotation, UConn doesn’t have anyone averaging more than 30 minutes per game. Williams leads the team at 28.5 minutes per game while Juhász has played the least in the rotation at 17.5 minutes per game.
18 — Paige Bueckers has played 18 minutes in both of the Huskies’ two postseason games after seeing just 13 minutes in each her first two games back from injury.