UConn women’s basketball 5 games to watch
The early portion of the UConn’s regular season schedule is relatively light. It begins with a pair of home dates against teams in midst of a rebuild, Ohio State and Vanderbilt, and continues in the U.S. Virgin Islands against Mississippi, St. John’s and Purdue as part of the Paradise Jam. Nobody’s expecting any of those teams to put a scare into the Huskies.
Be patient, though. The schedule will pick up in intensity, even for a team that’s expected to play deep into March. It’s marked by a daunting non-conference road slate, beginning Dec. 2 at defending national champion Notre Dame. There are also trips to Baylor (Jan. 3) and Louisville (Jan. 31) and a game at home against South Carolina (Feb. 11) — all of which could serve as pitfalls if the Huskies’ remodeled roster is unable to gel.
“This year we have a tremendous amount of tough non-conference games on the road. Next year they’re all at home,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Eventually it’ll balance itself out, half and half. This schedule, it’s not going to be [easy].”
If history is any indication, UConn should have no problems tackling its conference slate, which tips off Jan. 6 against Houston at the brand-new Fertitta Center. The Huskies, as expected, have been tabbed a heavy favorite to win a sixth straight American Athletic Conference title. They received 10 first-place votes in the preseason coaches poll, finishing ahead of South Florida.
Let’s take a closer look at the five games that could define UConn before the postseason.
Notre Dame, Sunday, Dec. 2, 4 p.m, at South Bend (ESPN): For the sixth time in eight years, the UConn-Notre Dame rivalry took center stage at the Final Four last March. And it ended in unforgettable fashion, with an Arike Ogunbowale jumper sinking the Huskies in the final second of overtime, 91-89.
Notre Dame went on to win its first national championship in 17 years. UConn went home.
For Geno Auriemma & Co. to reclaim their perch atop the sport this season, they will almost assuredly need to get past the Fighting Irish. They’ll meet in South Bend as part of the Jimmy V Women’s Classic.
The preseason No. 1 returns a wealth of talent, including Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey, Jackie Young and Jessica Shepard. All-American Brianna Turner is also back after sitting out last year rehabbing a knee injury. This will be the Huskies’ first true road game of the season. And it’s hard to imagine a more difficult assignment.
Baylor, Thursday, Jan. 3, 9 p.m., at Waco, Texas (ESPN): In all likelihood, there will be times this season when UConn’s lack of size becomes a noticeable issue. The Huskies have only two players taller than 6-foot-2 on their roster.
Will this be one of those times?
Baylor has a pair of game-changing players in the frontcourt in Big 12 preseason Player of the Year Kalani Brown (6-5) and Lauren Cox (6-4). Kim Mulkey is also adding the nation’s top recruiting class, which includes 6-2 NaLyssa Smith, a five-star prospect from in-state.
If the Huskies struggle to rebound and guard the post, this could be a frustrating night. But it’s worth reserving judgment until everyone sees how Auriemma’s team develops before the new year. The Huskies are 4-2 all-time against Baylor and recently agreed to extend this series through the 2020-21 season.
Louisville, Thursday, Jan. 31, 7 p.m., at Louisville (ESPN): Rest assured, the Huskies will not face many players better than Asia Durr. Like Samuelson, Durr was a first team All-American last season — averaging 18.7 points per game — and is a candidate for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, which is given annually to the nation’s best shooting guard.
The Huskies contained Durr last year, keeping her to 20 points in a 69-58 victory in Storrs. Both teams made the Final Four, but there would be no rematch.
Can the Cardinals return the favor, this time in the Bluegrass State? In addition to Durr, they return a strong supporting cast that includes Sam Fuehring, Jazmine Jones and Arica Carter. We’ll say this about Louisville: Jeff Walz should have a pretty detailed scouting report on UConn’s Christyn Williams and Nelson-Ododa after coaching them to gold at the FIBA Americas U-18 Championships over the summer.
South Carolina, Monday, Feb. 11, 7 p.m., at XL Center (ESPN2): The Huskies no longer have to contend with A’ja Wilson; the reigning National Player of the Year just finished up her rookie season in the WNBA. That doesn’t mean this game will be a layup. Dawn Staley has built a consistent winner in Columbia, guiding the Gamecocks to 25 wins or more in seven straight years, with the pinnacle being a national championship in 2017.
The Gamecocks, picked second behind Mississippi State in the SEC preseason poll , return four starters, including senior forward Alexis Jennings. They’re also adding former Tennessee guard Te’a Cooper and blue-chip recruit Destanni Henderson.
It’ll be quite difficult to knock off the Huskies in Hartford — or anywhere else, for that matter — but this isn’t Tulsa, Wichita State or SMU. The Gamecocks wouldn’t mind some payback for last year’s Elite Eight loss.
South Florida, Monday, March 4, 7 p.m., at Tampa (ESPN2): UConn has been unbeatable — literally — in conference play since the end of the old Big East following the 2012-13 season. AAC opponents are 0-101 against the Huskies over the last five years. Incredibly, only one of those games — a 63-60 victory at Tulane in 2017 — has been decided by single digits.
Odds are, the Huskies’ reign in the AAC won’t end this year, or any year. But can someone at least give them a scare? Or better yet, can someone actually beat them? USF has consistently been the bridesmaid, losing four straight years in the AAC Tournament final. The Bulls — who also visit Storrs in January — boast a big-time guard in Kitija Laksa.