UConn women’s basketball Walker ready to shine
PHILADELPHIA — Career trajectories are rarely linear. Players tend to hit a series of pot holes before they’re able to conquer the steep learning curve that college basketball offers.
Some players adapt when they’re freshmen. Some adapt as sophomores. And some never adapt at all.
“Unfortunately, some kids never get it. Some get it right away,” UConn women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma said Monday at American Athletic Conference media day. “Most of them, I think they have to have a certain amount of failure when they’re in college because they all come out of high school with all the accolades and all the awards and everything people are saying about them. They show up in college and they expect it to be just an extension of high school, and all of a sudden they get a dose of reality that they’re not any good.
“They come to one of our practices and we’ve got six pros on our team. … For six months, they can’t do anything right.”
Auriemma, now in his 34th season with the Huskies, has found sophomore year to be a make-or-break point in a player’s development.
“Generally speaking, their sophomore year, they’re already starting to understand there’s a big difference between what I used to do and what I need to do,” he said. “Those that don’t get it by the time they’re sophomores or towards the end of their sophomore year, I have found, pretty much don’t get it.”
Over the course of this offseason, there is one player in particular who has impressed Auriemma with how she has evolved as a prospect. That would be combo guard Megan Walker, who this time last year was projected to be an instant contributor as a freshman.
Walker, the consensus top recruit in the Class of 2017, was plagued by inconsistency throughout her first year in Storrs. Despite all the hype that surrounded the Monacan High School (Virginia) product, she struggled to adapt, averaging 5.8 points and 3.3 rebounds across 15.5 minutes per game.
“For me, personally, I couldn’t get over that hump,” Walker said Friday following First Night festivities at Gampel Pavilion. “I think I finally have this year, so I’m really excited.”
Auriemma, who is known to be a tough critic, has raved about the growth in Walker’s game. He explained Monday how she’s made a complete “180” from the beginning of last season.
“From the player that showed up the first week of practice last year to this year, it’s not even the same person,” Auriemma said. “That’s been really, really impressive to see her make that kind of a jump. Most freshmen make a jump, but hers has been huge — as big as any freshman I’ve seen.
“Now, she had a long way to jump, I get that.”
Auriemma has been vocal about UConn’s depth, or lack thereof, behind returning starters Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield. There are a few question marks, particularly in the backcourt. Mikayla Coombs was sidelined late last season and into the summer following the discovery of a blood clot in her leg. Lexi Gordon has been bothered lately by a sore hamstring. And Christyn Williams, while immensely talented, has yet to log a single minute in a regular season game.
“Her role can be whatever she wants it to be,” Auriemma said of Walker. “Obviously, we’ve got three kids that are going to handle most of the heavy lifting on our team. But I’ve had conversations with her, she needs to be really, really, really good. She kind of does need to be like Pheesa was as a sophomore. She needs to be a little bit of everything for us.”
Collier made a substantial leap early in her career, going from averaging 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds as a freshman to 20.4 points and 9.1 rebounds as a sophomore. It’s left to be determined whether the 6-foot-1 Walker can produce at a similar clip, however, Auriemma did say she’s “as good as anybody we have” when it comes to rebounding.
Teammates say the difference in Walker is tangible.
“She got a lot bigger,” Dangerfield said. “She hit the weight room really hard this summer. She’s been working on her foot speed. She’s doing a great job handling the challenges Coach throws at her.”
LEADING BY EXAMPLE: Auriemma has been effusive in his praise of Samuelson and Collier, including their ability to lead. He complimented both seniors again on Monday, saying that while neither player is very vocal, each knows how to get her message across.
“They’re not vocal kids. You’re not going to change Pheesa much,” Auriemma said. “She’s going to go out and she’s going to get a double-double. She’s going to play her butt off. That’s not going to change. She’s been like that since Day 1. You can count on her, and you know you can count on her. Lou, same thing. Lou’s learning. … She’s learned how to be more demonstrative, how to kind of guide people into certain things. She’s become much, much better at that.”
CHANGE IN THE AAC: East Carolina head coach Heather Macy has resigned, the school announced Wednesday. The announcement came after an internal review of the program led by the school’s office of compliance.
“I regret that my misunderstanding about practice rules has led to this end, but I have chosen to resign in order to save the University and the team from any unnecessary distractions,” Macy said in a press release.
Macy, who amassed a 134-117 record over eight seasons, will be replaced by assistant coach Chad Killinger on an interim basis.
UConn hosts ECU on Feb. 6 in Hartford.