Fourteen months ago near the conclusion of an interview with UConn Magazine about coaching the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team, Geno Auriemma was discussing the elements needed for a team to make a championship run in the NCAA.
“We don’t have a Maya Moore in the program,” the Hall of Fame coach of the women’s basketball team said about the 2011-2012 team that would eventually end its title quest in Denver last spring in the semifinals against Notre Dame. “But next year [in 2012] when we have almost everybody back, except for Tiffany [Hayes], and you add three good players, now you have the depth, the experience. You’ve got all the things championship teams need.”
It is now “next year.” The best freshman recruiting class in the nation – guard Moriah Jefferson, forward Morgan Tuck, and center Breanna Stewart, the National Player of the Year – is in Storrs, along with returning veterans Stefanie Dolson ’14 (CLAS), Caroline Doty ’13 (CLAS), Kelly Faris ’13 (ED), Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis ’15 (CLAS), and All-American Bria Hartley ’14 (CLAS).
As Husky fans know, when Auriemma thinks the Huskies are capable of winning a title, he says so. He says the depth and experience the Huskies have lacked since winning their seventh NCAA championship, is present this season.
He is concise in his view: “We have a really, really good team.”
Dolson, a 6-5 center who averaged 10.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season, will have the 6-4 Stewart, the nation’s top high school recruit, as a strong substitute center when needed and as a front-court option as a forward when they play together. Tuck, a versatile 6-2 forward who is aggressive in fighting for rebounds and driving to the basket, completes a front court that will be among the most difficult in the nation to defend. With 6-3 sophomore forward 6-3 Kiah Stokes ’15 (CLAS) and 6-3 senior Heather Buck ’13 (NUR) as reserves, the Huskies have more depth under the basket than they have had in many years.
The back-court players – Hartley (12 points, 3.6 rebounds), Doty (5.0, 2.2), Faris (6.7, 5.2), Mosqueda-Lewis (15.0, 5.4), and Brianna Banks ’15 (CLAS) (3.6, 1.1) – are joined by Moriah Jefferson, a true point guard who averaged 17.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 4.0 steals per game.
“One of the good things that comes from adding two players like Breanna and Morgan, who can play multiple positions, is it does allow you to move people around,” Auriemma says. “We can put a combination out there that’s difficult for a particular matchup we’re trying to create.”
Coaches and players both say the most dramatic improvement in a player since last season is evident in Banks, who saw sporadic playing time and lacked the confidence needed to play at guard in the UConn offense.
“She’s a lot more confident, a lot more sure of what she wants to do when she’s on the court,” Auriemma says. “There should be nobody we play against that should have an easy time of it when Brianna Banks is guarding them. It’s a heck of a thing for somebody to pressure the ball on a consistent basis and attack the defense and put people in foul trouble.”
Banks says she had to adjust her thinking to improve her game: “Most of my mistakes were trying to not do anything wrong. I felt if you do something wrong, you’re going to come out. I couldn’t get that out of my head. I didn’t play as much as I wanted. Something had to change. I can push through fatigue a lot better than I did last year. I’m not struggling as much on offense. I think my role is defense. Offense will come.”
The returning players say they want the team to play more consistently than last season, and each has their individual goals to improve:
Mosqueda-Lewis: “I’ve been working on being more consistent on defense, working on ball handling and getting to the basket more. That’s what my team needs from me. I can’t go through a slump, go one game where I have 2 rebounds, 1 steal, and 2 points. That’s not going to help my team.”
Hartley: “I want to make sure I am more of a leader. Last year I was developing that role. I want to make sure anything my teammates need, they can come to me.”
Doty: “There’s always room for improvement. I think I can still learn a lot. I don’t think I know more than anyone else. I just want to keep growing as a player to help win a championship at the end of the year.”
In the past week, the Huskies finally had the chance to play against a team other than themselves. The two exhibition wins against Indiana University Pennsylvania (105-28) and Holy Family (119-50) identified some continuing areas for improvement, despite the lopsided scores. Holy Family, a nationally ranked Division II team, kept the game close through the first 10 minutes of the game, twice having the lead.
Beginning Sunday in Gampel Pavilion against the College of Charleston (7 p.m., SNY, WTIC), the games will count. As usual, the No. 2 ranked Huskies will have one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, which this year features 11 teams ranked in the Top 25, including the defending NCAA Champions, No. 1 Baylor, and six other Top 10 teams.
“There’s nothing that I can say this year that’s going to change the expectation level here,” Auriemma says. “The expectation level here is to win the national championship. Some years you just have a better chance than others. Everybody will find out, come March.”