Wishing, Waiting For Heather Buck

Geno Auriemma admits it. There are times he's watching his team play, even though it's unbeaten, ranked first in the nation and the favorite to win a national championship, and he wishes he could put Heather Buck in the game.

Buck, UConn's 6-foot-3 fresh-man center from Stonington High School, is redshirting this season due to a bout with mononucleosis she suffered earlier in the year that set her back considerably. Buck returned to practice in weakened condition, but doesn't appear to be suffering any lingering effects now, as she oftentimes mashes the competition in practice, especially on defense.

”I just feel that watching her in practice, this kid is going to be really, really hard to play against,” Auriemma, the UConn coach, said this week. “I'd be surprised if she's not a high-level player for us.”

Playing her now would be unfair, said Auriemma, even though he loves the depth it would provide in the post.

”I try not to let it get to me,” Auriemma said, grinning, speaking of the impulse he's had to look down the bench and call Buck's name.

So here's the thing. UConn, 27-0 overall, 13-0 in the Big East Conference heading into today's game against Villanova at Gampel Pavilion (7:30 p.m., CPTV) is going to need the players it has - namely Tina Charles and Kaili McLaren in the post - to carry the burden.

”The pressure's on Tina and Kaili. That's all there is to it,” Auriemma said.

Not that that's a bad thing.

Charles, the Huskies' 6-4 junior center and a preseason All-American, is averaging 16.0 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. She had 19 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots in a 76-66 victory over Notre Dame on Sunday and that was a game in which Auriemma was annoyed with her for only shooting 2-for-6 in the first half. Never mind when Charles is really, really good.

McLaren (4.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.1 apg) is also generally pretty reliable. She came off the bench in a tight game Sunday and scored inside on a hook shot that sparked an 8-0 run for the Huskies just before halftime.

It's just that depth is always something Auriemma is looking for. And that the coach feels Charles, as heralded as she is and despite her shooting percentage of .596, could be more efficient.

”She should get 30 every night,” Auriemma said Sunday, raising his voice for emphasis. “Before she breaks a sweat. Thirty by halftime.”

You couldn't prove it by other coaches though. Charles is a part of what is considered UConn's Big Three - along with All-Americans Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery - which combined for 62 points in a win over St. John's this season. The trio had 57 against Notre Dame.

”Tina Charles in the post is a very good player, an All-American-caliber player,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think that with the rest of them, I felt we could match up with them, but the Big Three were pretty good.”

So Auriemma knows there's not too many people in America feeling sorry for him. Just, with what he sees in practice every day from Buck, he can't wait until that carries over.

”You know how you can tell when somebody doesn't mind working really hard ... when you say to them, 'Hey, there's another level you can get to,' and they understand,” Auriemma said of Buck.

UConn can clinch a share of what would be its 17th Big East regular-season title with a victory today.

New and notes

Villanova (17-10, 9-4) is coming off back-to-back losses to No. 19 Pittsburgh (72-54) and No. 8 Louisville (70-56). The Wildcats lead the Big East in scoring defense, giving up just 53.1 points per game. ... UConn's Tiffany Hayes was named Big East Freshman of the Week on Monday for the third time in four weeks. Hayes, who had 10 points, five rebounds and four assists against Notre Dame, has scored in double figures in eight of the last nine games.
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