UConn women, despite being AAC favorites again, face challenges
Philadelphia — Even a program like UConn women's basketball faces its share of challenges, despite its enormous success.
The Huskies just don't roll out the basketball and ring up national championships.
Take this season.
Sure, they're overwhelming favorites to finish their last season in the American Athletic Conference with another title. They earned 11 first-place votes in the conference preseason poll while South Florida took second and Central Florida and Cincinnati tied for third. They haven't lost a regular season AAC game in the league's six previous seasons
But they have huge void to fill by the departure of All-Americans Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson.
"Generally, over the past number of years whenever we've graduated two players like the two that just graduated this year, we always have ready-made replacements that have already proven themselves to be All-American-type players, so the transition isn't as drastic," coach Geno Auriemma said during AAC media day on Monday.
"This is one of these years where not only did we lose the most points that we've ever lost combined with two kids, but there's no easy answer to where are we going to get all those points. Who is the three-point shooter that's going to make as many threes as Lou did? Who's going to be as efficient as Napheesa was with the ball, or rebound the way she rebounded?
"So, it's one of those years where everything is in a state of flux. ... This year is going to be a real challenge where we're going to get what we need and who it is going to come from."
The Huskies certainly still have plenty of talent.
Senior guard Crystal Dangerfield shared AAC preseason player of the year honors with Central Florida's Kay Kay Wright. Dangerfield was a unanimous selection to the first team while junior Megan Walker and sophomore Christyn Williams made first and second team, respectively, for the Huskies.
Auriemma is counting on those three to carry the torch this season.
"A lot of the pressure is going to land on (Crystal), Megan Walker and Christyn Williams," Auriemma said. "Thank God, (Christyn) played as much as she played last year and got as much as experience as she got because she is going to have to be crucial. So you're counting on a senior (Crystal) coming off surgery that didn't play all summer, Megan who is a junior and Christyn who is a sophomore. Those three guys are going to have to be great every single night, especially against the good teams."
Dangerfield, the team's top returning scorer at 13.4 points per game, is practicing but still not all the way back from off-season hip surgery.
She realizes more will be expected of her this season with Collier and Samuelson, who averaged a combined 39.4 points per game, gone.
"We have to take more responsibility for what happens and what goes wrong and things like that," Dangerfield said. "It's going to be a collective effort each night what we do on the floor as far as how we get our wins. But leading the charge, the three of us are going to have to be the ones to do that.
"... The three of us, we have to be at a certain level every night for us to have a really good chance to win."
The Huskies have experienced NCAA tournament heartbreak in each of the last three seasons, losing in the NCAA national semifinals, twice in overtime.
"It's tough," Dangerfield said. "We've been fortunate to make it back to that final weekend three years straight but we left in the semifinal game empty-handed. We're just trying to figure out what went wrong and what we can change leading up to the point and being consistent."
Expectations are the Huskies will contend for the national championship again. The Huskies have added some impact newcomers.
They'll have to do in a different way, though, this season.
Auriemma's expectation is that it will take time to evolve into a contender.
"I've resigned myself to the fact that it's going to be ugly for a long time," he said. "There's been years when we come out the gate and we'll play a top 10 team in the country first or second game of the year and smack them really good. I can't imagine that happening. You watch practice and we'll got through stretches where I'll be like, 'Damn, this looks really really good.' And then we'll go through a half hour where I don't think we can beat anybody.
"So I think it's going to be a lot of that until we get until after January or something like that."
AAC 2019-20 PRESEASON POLL
(First place votes in parentheses)
1. UConn (11), 121 points
2. South Florida, 107
3. Central Florida (1), 96
3. Cincinnati, 96
5. Houston, 81
6. Temple, 68
7. Tulane, 59
8. Memphis, 42
9. Wichita State, 37
10. Tulsa, 33
11. East Carolina, 31
12. SMU, 21
Preseason Players of the Year
Kay Kay Wright, G, UCF
Crystal Dangerfield, G, UConn
Preseason All-AAC First Team
Kay Kay Wright, G, UCF
*Crystal Dangerfield, G, UConn
Megan Walker, F, UConn
*Mia Davis, F, Temple
Krystal Freeman, F, Tulane
Antoinette Miller, G, Cincinnati
IImar'I Thomas, F, Cincinnati
Christyn Williams, G, UConn
Dorian Branch, G, Houston
Enna Pehadzic, G, USF