Is UConn's defense legit? Can the juniors finally be consistent? Five questions facing the Huskies entering the postseason
UConn enters March Madness playing its best basketball of the season, but there’s still plenty for the Huskies to improve on.
Welcome to the UConn WBB Weekly, a recap of everything that happened in the world of UConn women’s basketball over the past week from the team that runs The UConn Blog and Storrs Central.
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From The UConn Blog and Storrs Central:
Last week’s Weekly:
Azzi Fudd is unbreakable (ESPN) — A phenomenal inside look at Azzi Fudd’s recovery.
In the news
Paige Bueckers has been named one of 11 semifinalists for the Naismith Player of the Year Trophy.
Bueckers is also one of five finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which goes to the nation’s best point guard.
Aaliyah Edwards won Big East Freshman of the Week.
The Big East will announce its yearly awards on Thursday at 11 a.m.
Five questions facing UConn entering the postseason
UConn women’s basketball wrapped up its regular season on Monday with a 63-53 win over Marquette and now, it turns its attention to the postseason. The Huskies’ quest for their first Big East Tournament title in nine years begins on Saturday while the NCAA Tournament is set to tip-off on March 21.
As Geno Auriemma always says this time of year: “You either have two games left or you have nine — or anything in between.”
While UConn has progressed quite a bit since the opener against UMass Lowell and holds the top spot in the AP Poll, there are still plenty of questions surrounding this team as it prepares for this defining stretch of the season.
Is UConn’s defense legit?
At the start of the year, the Huskies’ defense rated well statistically but didn’t perform well against better teams. When they traveled to Arkansas, they gave up 90 points while letting Chelsea Dungee go off for 37 points.
That game proved to be a wake-up call. UConn showed tangible signs of improvement by holding a good Marquette squad to just 58 points a few games later and after that, it only allowed more than 60 points once. Only one team — Marquette — has shot better than 40 percent from the floor. Whereas the Huskies used to just hope opponents missed shots, they’re now forcing them into bad looks.
The advanced statistics look favorably on UConn’s defense. It only allows 71.9 points per 100 possessions (third-best nationally) while Her Hoop Stats rates the Huskies as the best defensive team in the country.
There’s a caveat, though. Since Arkansas, UConn has only played one top-40 offense according to Her Hoop Stats’ rankings — South Carolina. The next-best offense the Huskies have faced is Marquette, at 46th.
While it’s a positive sign that UConn is taking care of business on the defensive end against weaker teams, it still needs to prove it can slow down a high-octane offense.
Will Makurat make an impact when she returns?
Considering Anna Makurat started the year slow and then missed the final 13 games of the regular season with a lower leg injury, it’s easy to forget just how impactful the sophomore can be.
Makurat’s proven herself to be an excellent distributor (3.8 assists per game) and when she’s on, she’s a lights-out three-point shooter. Though she only made 32.3 percent from beyond the arc this season before her injury, she hit at a 41.0 percent clip and made shots in bunches as a freshman.
While Makurat’s passing will augment an already-strong offense, her shooting would be a major boon for a UConn team that still doesn’t have a consistent threat from beyond the arc outside of Paige Bueckers.
Makurat warmed up with the team before the Marquette game and though she didn’t play, she seems to be nearing a return. While her talent is undeniable, it remains to be seen whether she can come back and make an impact this season after missing so much time.
How much will the freshmen contribute?
If UConn caps off this season with a national championship, it’ll almost certainly be an effort led by Paige Bueckers. The freshman has been spectacular this year, leading the team in points, minutes, assists, steals, and 3-point percentage. The Huskies know they can count on her.
While Bueckers has grabbed the headlines, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl have been impressive as well. Both players are enjoying strong freshmen campaigns with Muhl now a starter while Edwards has become Auriemma’s top option off the bench.
The two players each bring a unique skill set to the squad and have transformed how UConn plays. Muhl has mostly taken over point guard duties, which allows Bueckers to play off the ball and look for her shot more often. Auriemma also credited her with improving the team’s defensive communication, one of the team’s biggest issues earlier in the year.
As for Edwards, she’s playing her best basketball right now with 13.3 points and 6.8 rebounds over the last 10 games. Her bruising presence in the paint also provides a perfect complement to the more finesse-oriented Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
At the very least, Edwards and Muhl just need to give UConn solid minutes without making too many mistakes such as fouling or turning the ball over. But both players have improved significantly since December and if they can find another gear for March, the Huskies will be a tough team to beat.
Can Nelson-Ododa and Williams find consistency?
For as good as Bueckers and the freshmen have been, UConn will rely heavily on Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams to make a serious run at the title. Though both have played at a high level at times this season, neither has sustained it.
Nelson-Ododa started the year strong with double-digit points in each of her first eight games but has only done so eight times in her last 14 games. She did close the regular season on a high note with at least 11 points in five straight contests and a combined 30 rebounds in her last three.
Williams has nights where she’ll set a new career-high (29 against DePaul on Jan. 31) and others where she’ll fail to score at all (most recently against Seton Hall on Feb. 10). That volatility is evident in the way Williams finished the regular season with a run of six games with 15 or more points each time out before she scored just six points on 2-8 shooting against Marquette.
Whereas Nelson-Ododa’s ups and downs are typically stretched out over long periods of time, it’s hard to know which version of Williams will show up on a given night. Both players do seem to be trending upwards entering the postseason but it’s hard to say either has turned a corner given their overall body of work.
While Bueckers can carry this team a long way on her own, the two juniors are just as crucial to the Huskies’ title hopes. UConn needs both of them to be at the top of their respective games every night.
Can Evina Westbrook rediscover her 3-point shot?
At one point this season, Evina Westbrook was UConn’s most consistent player. She scored at least 10 points in nine straight games and averaged 11.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per contest while shooting 41.4 percent from three.
But since February, it’s been a much different story. While Westbrook’s rebounding and assist numbers have mostly held steady (5.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists per game), and her scoring has dropped off precipitously. In her last 10 games, she’s averaging just 6.5 points and has been in double-figures as many times as she’s failed to score (twice). Westbrook has also hit just five 3-pointers in that time with a 16.1 percent mark from beyond the arc.
Westbrook doesn’t need to be one of UConn’s top scorers, especially with the emergence of Edwards over the second half. The more concerning decline is in her 3-point shooting since the Huskies don’t have any besides Bueckers who can hit shots from deep on a consistent basis.
As long as Westbrook continues to pass and rebound, UConn just needs her to find a happy medium between her torrid start and recent barren stretch. If she can do that, the Huskies will be far more balanced on offense.
Best of social media
Paige Bueckers getting some love from another great UConn point guard:
espnW @espnWWho holds the single-game assist record for @UConnWBB? Not Sue. Not Diana. Not Renee. Not Maya, but ... Freshman Paige Bueckers (14) 👏 https://t.co/Sme9hRRGVY
Geno vs. Paige continues:
UConn’s most recent Canadian connection chatted this past week:
SportsCentre @SportsCentreDays after her first career NCAA double-double, Aaliyah Edwards joins 🇨🇦 national teammate Kia Nurse to discuss her first season for No. 1 UConn, how playing on the national team prepared her and looking forward to #MarchMadness in less than a month: https://t.co/FkZf03Hee9 https://t.co/PNXQK7pz1l
No caption necessary:
Texas A&M (+1)
NC State (-1)
South Carolina dropped to No. 7.
Arkansas moved up three spots to No. 13 while Tennessee jumped six spots to No. 14.
DePaul fell to No. 25.