Here’s how UConn coach Geno Auriemma could manage his deep, talented roster

Photo of Mike Anthony

With a few hyped recruits on board and many established players returning, it’s easy to label the 2021-22 UConn team as one of the deepest in recent program history.

Premature assessments aren’t really Geno Auriemma’s thing. But after roster construction over several years, a productive offseason and now a couple weeks of practice, he’s optimistic even while careful.

“We have a lot of people,” Auriemma said. “Whether or not we have a lot of depth, that will iron itself out. I’m guessing we do.”

The rotation that UConn settles on early in the season, which begins Nov. 14 against Arkansas at the XL Center, doesn’t have to be the one the Huskies take into the NCAA Tournament. Auriemma has enough trust in some players, and enough hope for others, that the coming months should allow for extended looks at all sorts of combinations and approaches.

There will be opportunity for UConn to get more specific in how it plays certain opponents, how it approaches stretches of games, based on strengths or weaknesses or needs. Auriemma has many options and playing styles to explore, an ability to call on players with a particular skill in mind.

“We can put people in for what we need,” Auriemma said. “I thought last year we were kind of stuck in that the same players had to play extended minutes. And hopefully, that won’t be the case this year.”

The UConn bench hasn’t been so strong in recent years, due largely to some unexpected departures (Azurá Stevens, Megan Walker) and recruiting misjudgments (most of the high school Class of 2017).

The Huskies have always had a solid starting five but players in the 7-10 section of the rotation haven’t always been called upon very often because, in reality, they were recruited more with that 10-12 section in mind.

The rotation did run eight deep last year with contributions from Aaliyah Edwards (21.8 minutes a game), Anna Makurat (20.4) and Aubrey Griffin (16.8), but the team was still very much reliant on what starters could do and for how long. Reserves’ minutes are always a bit inflated, too, with playing time accumulated late in blowouts.

Edwards became a force up front, of course, and started six games; four after guard Nika Muhl was injured in the NCAA Tournament opener. Muhl and Edwards return as sophomores, and so do the rest of the primary starters: sophomore Paige Bueckers and seniors Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.

There are options. There is versatility. There are 200 available minutes of playing time per game. Freshman Azzi Fudd is a virtual lock to play a prominent backcourt role. Post player Dorka Juhasz, a transfer from Ohio State, is similarly expected to log heavy minutes in the frontcourt.

So the math gets complicated, the chemistry intriguing. Griffin, eighth on the team in playing time last season, will be in the mix as a guard/forward. So, too, will freshmen guards Caroline Ducharme and Saylor Poffenbarger and, potentially, a post player in freshman Amari DeBerry or sophomore Piath Gabriel.

Will Auriemma have a rotation of 10 or 11? Probably not. There will just be a lot of mixing and matching, particularly if several inexperienced players prove capable.

Muhl’s role will be interesting. She started 14 games in a row as a freshman last year until her injury against High Point. This season, she’s part of a more crowded backcourt, largely due to Fudd’s arrival. That means Muhl is likely to play less — but not necessarily offer something less meaningful.

“She’s not in foul trouble yet, so that’s a good sign,” Auriemma said. “She’s been in America now a year and a half, total. She still hasn’t fouled anybody, according to her. You show it to her on film, she says it was doctored. … So once we harness her energy and her toughness and her emotions, she adds something to our team that no one else has. She actually has a physical toughness about her that I don’t know that anybody else on our team has. I love that about her. She’s relentless.”

Auriemma can gauge how a particular game is going and respond accordingly.

The team looks soft on the perimeter? Muhl can enter. The team needs a spark in transition? Westbrook can enter. The opponent is small? UConn can go with a four-guard lineup of, for instance, Bueckers, Fudd, Williams and Westbrook. The opponent is long? UConn can go big across the board with Nelson-Ododa, Edwards and Juhasz.

Of Nelson-Ododa, Auriemma said, “We count on Liv for a lot of things. One of the stats that came out of last year was that every time Liv got in foul trouble, our team was in big trouble. Now that might be a little bit different because maybe we have more people to help out this year.”

A focus early in practice, which began Oct. 8, has been to extend the Huskies’ offense and the opposing defense. That means pushing post players to get comfortable shooting from the outside. Auriemma expects better success from Nelson-Ododa and Edwards in that area. He has had multiple players who fit more than one position continually switch groups during practice.

“We did it with Stewie and Gabby and Lou,” Auriemma said of Breanna Stewart, Gabby Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson. “We move them around so they don’t stay in one spot too long. Caroline is getting some of that. And Aubrey is going to be doing that pretty much the whole year. (Saylor) moves around a little bit too. One of the things we’re trying to find is some big bodies who can shoot the ball pretty well from the perimeter so we can stretch people out.”

The goal is to be prepared to dictate a game’s style, no matter the opponent, or at least match it. The Huskies want to be able to run with, and ahead of, Arkansas in what should be an opener played at breakneck pace. They want to be able to rough up the roughest teams — say, top-ranked South Carolina on Jan. 27 on the road.

UConn might have enough capable players to do all that, particularly if multiple freshmen develop.

“Everybody progresses at their own pace, but … Azzi and Caroline, they look like they just blend right in,” Auriemma said of the freshmen. “The other guys, Saylor and Amari, both have been dealing with some health issues so they haven’t had as much of a chance. But Azzi and Caroline look like they’ve been here. There are some things they do that looks like they’ve been part of the team for a while.”

Fudd is considered the most talented freshman in America. There is always an eye-opening acclimation period, though.

“The biggest adjustment was just how strong everyone was,” Fudd said. “Like, I was guarding Christyn (in a recent practice) and she bumped me and I flew. I’ve never flown in my life, and I flew. I was like, ‘She’s kind of strong.’ Since then, I’m trying to adjust. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it, but that was my first, like, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m in college now.’”

Asked about that play, Williams said, “I was just trying to get to the basket. She was in the way.”

Westbrook should be able to offer more this season. She wasn’t necessarily herself in 2020-21, still getting comfortable after a year spent rehabilitating a surgically reconstructed knee.

“She needed a lot of breaks last year,” Auriemma said. “That hasn’t been the case so far. She looks good.”

And the Huskies look deep.

Can we even assume Bueckers, a facilitator at heart, will lead the team in scoring again? Will Nelson-Ododa lead in rebounds and blocks? Will more than one person need to average 30-plus minutes? When UConn won its most recent national title, only Moriah Jefferson did (30.9). Last year, Bueckers averaged 36.2 minutes, Williams 34.4 and Westbrook 30.7.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, obviously,” Auriemma said. “With nine freshmen and sophomores on the team, things move slowly. Considering that, I think we’ve gotten a lot accomplished.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHearst