HARTFORD, Connecticut — The undefeated Connecticut Huskies walked into the locker room at XL Center, as they often do, fresh off a 22-point dismantling of a quality program, as they’ve often done.
In a less common sight, only eight players were dressed. Paige Bueckers, the 2021 National Player of the Year; Dorka Juhász a fifth-year all-conference forward; and Ice Brady, the No. 5-ranked recruit in the 2022 freshman class, were in sweats. Bueckers and Brady won’t see the floor at all this season. It’s no small loss.
“I betcha that’s 40 points and 20 rebounds that just walked through the door that isn’t playing tonight,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said after the 91-69 win against then-No. 10 NC State. “This is the only place in America where people say, ‘Yeah, that’s not a problem.’ And I told them that. I said this is the only place in America where people actually talk like that. And I think they take that to heart.”
Everyone outside of Connecticut is always waiting for the 11-time champions to actually fall. So far, even given the adversity they’ve faced in recent years, the Huskies haven’t. They’ve barely stumbled, even amid a daunting schedule. But is this the test everyone thought they’d face as the season approached? Are they as good as the final scores on paper might suggest?
“I don’t know how good we are yet,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know, because I’ve seen this be both ways, a struggle and great.”
It’s always best to focus on oneself, as coaches often say. But it’s hard to overlook the struggles their first two Top-10 opponents have faced and how it contextualizes the Huskies’ wins. These aren’t the matchups most expected to see even a month ago. It might not end up mattering.
Texas longs for return of Rori Harmon
The first test in UConn’s packed schedule was Texas, which came into the season ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll after losing to Stanford in the NCAA regional final. Its major returner is point guard Rori Harmon, the reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year and Big 12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player who received All-American honorable mention. She averaged 11.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, five assists and 2.4 blocks per game, all of which were best or second-best on the team.
UConn didn’t play that Texas team since Harmon is in a walking boot on the bench. The floor general remains day-to-day with a foot injury head coach Vic Schaefer has characterized as “nothing major-major.” It has hurt on both sides of the floor, and especially in the UConn game where Azzi Fudd dropped 32 points.
“When you take Rori Harmon off the floor, you’re taking somebody that alters the games both ways,” Schaefer said. “She is such a pest defensively. She’s not going to let you run your offense, she ain’t going to let the point guard get where she wants to get to, she’s a great help defender. And then it just kind of permeates through your team. When you see her working the ball up the floor and in the press, and how hard she plays, you can’t help but play hard if you’re behind her.”
Offensively, she is more familiar with how Schaefer wants to play and what he wants to do. Shaylee Gonzales, the 2022 WCC Player of the Year who transferred from BYU, has played the point in her absence and is averaging 4.4 turnovers per game, at the bottom of Division I, and averaging half of her steals average last season. Guard Sonya Morris, who transferred from DePaul, is also in the starting lineup and shooting at a 36.5% clip, worse than only her freshman season, and 28.6% from 2-point range, 20 percentage points worse than her four-year average.
“We just haven’t had a lot of time to work without Rori around to kind of get used to a little bit of chemistry,” Schaefer said after the UConn loss, with Gonzales, Morris and freshman guard Ndjakalenga Mwenentanda with him on the dais. “All three of these young ladies up here, y’all. Two of them [were] in the transfer portal and this is a freshman. I’ve had them for 32 practices. So they’re still learning our way.”
The Longhorns’ (2-3) wins are against Louisiana (+23) and Rutgers (+38), and losses to then-No. 5 UConn (-7), Marquette (-7) and then-No. 6 Louisville (-8). Most telling is the turnovers from 14.3 per game last season (ranking 85th at a rate in the 83rd percentile) to 19.4 (276, 33rd percentile) and steals from 9.9 per game (12.4% rate, 94th percentile) to 7.2 per game (8.5%, 74th percentile), per Her Hoop Stats. Their offensive rating dropped from 101.2 (ranking 32nd) to 94.6 (128), their defensive rating has risen from 80.6 (15th) to 84.3 (106), a sore spot for defensive-minded Schaefer, and their net from 20.6 (15) to 10.3 (105), according to Her Hoop Stats.
In the game against UConn, the Longhorns’ offense shot 51.5%, including 44.4% from range, but with 26 total rebounds (-8), 18 turnovers and six steals. Last season, they turned it over more than 18 times in seven games and fewer than six steals only twice, including the season-ender to Stanford.
“We’ve got to be better defensively,” Schaefer said. “It’s usually the last thing you get through the course of a season and with so many new players, we’re going to be a lot better in February. We’ll be a lot better tomorrow because of tonight, but we’ll be a lot better team in February.”
Transfers need more time to become Wolfpack
The UConn-NC State rematch was never going to be as great as the Elite Eight instant classic in March. Yet, most expected it to be better than the 91-69 final on Sunday.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” NC State head coach Wes Moore quipped to a Wolfpack beat reporter on the way out of the XL Center news conference room in Hartford. “I’m sorry I had to see that.”
The Wolfpack, ranked No. 10 at the time, are also a very different team than they were last season. Center Elissa Cunane, a Naismith Player of the Year semifinalist, was drafted into the WNBA. The only starter returning from the three-time regular season ACC champions was wing Jakia Brown-Turner. Diamond Johnson, the ACC’s Sixth Player, also returned and Moore added transfers Saniya Rivers (South Carolina), River Baldwin (Florida State) and Mimi Collins (Maryland).
The Wolfpack were 4-0, but made it there with wins against Quinnipiac (+37), Elon (+44), Mount St. Mary’s (Md.) (+48) and Charlotte (+48). Their points-per-play and scoring attempt numbers are nearly identical to last season, per Her Hoop Stats, but rank worse this early though it’s an unfair comparison given many teams’ competition — the Wolfpack included.
It was a test for NC State maybe more than it was for UConn on Sunday afternoon. They didn’t get an A.
“After last year’s group, I thought we had a team that was really mature and competed and had some toughness about them,” Moore said. “And this team, this was the first game we had where we faced adversity. We knew it was going to be that way.
“[It] wasn’t very pretty to watch. I think people in the past have enjoyed watching our team. I doubt anybody enjoyed watching us today.”
The Huskies, led by point guard Nika Mühl’s punishing early defense and program-record 15 assists that beat out Bueckers’ record (14), scored the first nine points and cruised to a 23-13 first-quarter lead, 40-33 at the half and 66-47 through three.
NC State had 19 turnovers, five more than the Elite Eight meeting and more than all but one game last season. It averaged 12.1 per game, ranking 10th in Division I. Its nine assists were below the 14.3 per game average of 21-22 and far below the 20 against the Huskies last year. UConn took advantage for 27 points off turnovers and 22 off fast breaks.
“This team just lacks the experience of last year’s team,” Auriemma said. “Last year’s team was unbelievably experienced. They had three kind of grad-level kids, right? Anytime you’re going through that, it’s going to take you a while to find it. But in terms of talent base and the way they play, the way he coaches, the shots that they get, [it’s] very similar to last year’s team. They just don’t have the experience of last year’s team.”
It’s tough to bring multiple players into a new program and put them on the court against one with the lineage UConn boasts, a history their players are well aware and prideful toward.
Auriemma believes the portal and mid-major programs largely keeping their talent together for years is a large reason why upsets of Top 25 teams will keep happening.
It’s also why Top 25 programs will have some hiccups early. Much like Texas, Moore and NC State have only had so many practices together this early in the season. That will change in March.
UConn looks into itself
Taking a deeper look into UConn’s opponents struggles is not to say that the Huskies aren’t playing well. Their offense looked crisp against NC State with Mühl dishing assists and hitting a late 3-pointer, her sole points of the game, to arena roars.
The transition game was key as Aubrey Griffin tipped passes to the tune of six steals — double that of NC State as a team — and 16 points on a 6-of-9 day. The team hit 50% of its 68 attempts and was 10-of-29 from 3. Lou Lopez Senechal scored 20 and Aaliyah Edwards put up a 20-point, 12-rebound double-double.
“You can’t predict this, right?” Auriemma said. “You can’t predict this kind of score.”
And certainly not after the first half. NC State had cut it close a few times late and UConn had to rely exclusively on Edwards (12 points), Griffin (six points) and Fudd (22 points) to score. They took all but eight of the team’s shot attempts that half. But it was Fudd, again, who carried it with four first-half 3s and an 8-of-13 shooting performance. The rest of the team was 8-of-13.
“You can’t play better than she played today,” Auriemma said. “She’s so efficient. She was. No wasted motions. And she missed a layup, she missed a couple. There’s a whole ’nother whatever that she hasn’t gotten to yet, which is scary. But she’s pretty special. You don’t see too many players, I don’t care what league, high school, college, pro, I don’t care, that can take the ball and do what she does with it so fast.”
Fudd has largely erased early worry about how UConn will replace Bueckers. But it still needs to find another scorer, as Auriemma told his assistants out of the halftime break. Against NC State, it was Griffin and Senechal who showed up alongside Fudd, whose output was the second in a row of 32 points and joined the 26-point opener. Her 64 points in back-to-back games ties the best of any UConn player against top-10 competition through at least 1999-2000, per ESPN Stats and Info. She’s a 54.8% shooter through three games and carrying the offensive output.
“I said [to my assistants] I don’t know that we should be able to count on Azzi to get 32 every night. Some other people better step up,” Auriemma said. “But that’s two games in a row now, so I don’t know.”
If there’s a major question in Storrs, it’s: What happens when Fudd can’t drop double digits? When a team with more defensive experience together, one that is better at communicating, quiets her down? When everyone gets strong as the season progresses?
“Our post players are going to decide the fate of our season,” Auriemma said. “People are going to struggle shooting the ball because they always do. At some point, the ball isn’t going to go in the basket as much.”
Edwards and the 6-5 Juhász, who is out a minimum of two more games, will have to be “great every night.” At UConn, stepping up is commonplace no matter how many points and rebounds you’re replacing.
The journey continues Friday with Duke (5-0) at the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland. Head coach Kara Lawson told the Duke Chronicle the Blue Devils’ depth will help on the defensive end and allow them to press full-court. UConn will play either No. 9 Iowa, one of the nation’s best offenses to keep up with, or Oregon State on Sunday.
After how their first two high-caliber tests went, Auriemma has set the baseline to keep going up.
“If we’re going to compete like that, these two games, where we play with that kind of energy and purpose, I think that was a great test for us,” Auriemma said. “These two games kind of showed us where we could be.”