The 2021-22 UConn women’s basketball team may be returning all five starters and most of the key reserves but as the Huskies’ first preseason practice kicked off Friday one thing was clear: There are no guarantees when it comes to playing time.
“Going in you would think that, yeah, [last year’s starters] have an edge over everyone else,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “How big an edge and whether that edge stays that way, that’s what’s going to show itself as we practice.
“The competition for those top eight or nine spots [in the rotation] is going to be pretty intense and we’ve got a month to find out who they are. We have a pretty good idea of who some of them are, but we don’t have a clear, concise idea of who all of them are.”
Auriemma’s 2020-21 team had plenty of depth, with eight players averaging over 15 minutes per game. Though Anna Makurat left the program, another stacked, four-person recruiting class for 2021, plus the offseason addition of Ohio State graduate transfer forward Dorka Juhász, should take that depth to another level.
“I like when people say ‘Coach Auriemma, he only likes to play six players,’” Auriemma said. “They don’t remember, when we had a lot of good players, we played a lot of players. So a lot of it has to do with who can perform. And we have some players that I think, based on what I’ve seen, can add a lot, so we’re going to play them.”
“I feel like [depth was] something that we were missing in the Final Four,” senior guard Christyn Williams added. “We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things and it’s extremely competitive this year. It was competitive last year, but it’s really competitive this year. So that’s something that we needed.”
That added depth has bred competition among returners and newcomers. It might mean the days of Auriemma playing a few players for a ton of minutes — Paige Bueckers, Evina Westbrook, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Williams each played over 26 minutes per game last year — are over.
“There’s something to be said for having the same people out there long stretches of time because they develop a certain chemistry and they can do things together,” he said. “But also, subconsciously, if you know you’re not coming out, there’s a little bit of a, ‘Hey, I’m good.’ Now, there’s ‘I’m not gonna play as many minutes as I did last year maybe, and not because I’m not good enough, it’s just that’s the way it is.’
“So your minutes and your time out on the floor is going to have to be really productive at both ends.”
That competition will likely be fiercest in the backcourt. A strength of last year has gotten even better with the additions of No. 1 overall recruit Azzi Fudd, a 5-foot-11 guard, and No. 5 recruit Caroline Ducharme, a 6-2 guard.
Auriemma has been hesitant to talk up Fudd, who like sophomore Bueckers was massively hyped as a potential generational player before stepping foot on campus. Teammates confirm she’s a killer shooter, something that, outside of Bueckers, the team was missing consistently last season.
“One of the things that’s attractive about [Fudd] and Paige and our other freshmen this year: They’re very laid back and very reserved. So they don’t come out here early on and impose themselves on you,” Auriemma said. “We haven’t seen a lot of what Azzi can do, we’ve only seen a little bit. And I think it’ll be a little bit at a time. There won’t be this Maya [Moore] or Stewie [Breanna Stewart] November where she’s getting 30 on some nights.”
He seemed particularly high Juhász and Ducharme. Auriemma compared Ducharme to former Husky Carla Berube for having quietly efficient and impactful games.
“It’s going to be interesting to see where she fits in because I can see her having a really prominent role on our team,” he said. “What that means I don’t know, but she’s sneaky good.”
Juhász has dealt with a leg issue that’s limited her the last few weeks, but Auriemma has praised her for being a long, skilled post who is eager to make an impact. With the addition of Juhász and the growth of Nelson-Ododa, Auriemma said the frontcourt is already “a little bit ahead of where we were last year.”
“I’m really, really, really glad that she’s here,” Auriemma said of Juhász. “She could be the difference that puts us into that other level.”
When’s the last time Auriemma had this much true depth, at least on paper?
He gazed at the wall of All-Americans in Werth Champions Center and started going down the list. “Probably when there was Stef [Dolson] and Kaleena [Mosqueda-Lewis] and Moriah [Jefferson] and Morgan [Tuck], [Katie] Lou [Samuelson], Phees [Napheesa Collier], Bria Hartley.” Coincidentally, he forgot to mention Stewart.
“That’s pretty good team,” Auriemma chuckled. “That was a pretty damn good team.”
Auriemma said the team will hold a closed scrimmage against a Division I team prior to its exhibition game versus Fort Hays State. He was unable to provide further details.
Williams said she’s 100 percent after undergoing left elbow surgery over the summer. She had an ulnar nerve transposition and a scope in the back of her elbow. Other injuries include: Junior Aubrey Griffin (back), sophomore Mir McLean (knee tendinitis), Bueckers (wrist), freshman Saylor Poffenbarger (back).
Alexa Philippou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org