Wednesday, April 2
Huskies turn 'rebuilding' year into 'career' year
By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com
When Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams left Connecticut's starting lineup for a spot in the WNBA, everyone seemed to think this would be a rebuilding year for the Huskies, who have no seniors and entered the season with a handful of underclassmen with little experience.
So much for that theory.
Instead, UConn has reached its fourth straight Final Four and is closing in on its second consecutive NCAA title and third in the past four years.
And instead of a rebuilding year, everyone from Diana Taurasi to Maria Conlon are having career years. Instead of folding under pressure, the freshmen have faced every challenge. Everyone on this team is playing at a level higher than they should be.
So how far can this group of overachievers go? Here's our take.
1. What has impressed you most about UConn so far in the NCAA Tournament?
The Huskies' young posts, Barb Turner and Jessica Moore, have been playing really well, and have really given UConn a legitimate post presence. They have combined for 87 points and 45 rebounds while shooting 35-for-63 (56 percent) from the field. Moore, a 6-foot-3 sophomore center (who redshirted the 2000-01 season and averaged 18.4 minutes last season) entered the tournament averaging 10.5 points, but is scoring 11.7 points per game so far in the NCAA Tournament. Turner, a freshman, has kept her average right at 10 points. And although their nearly 22-point combined average falls far short of replacing the 39 points put up every night by Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams last season, these two youngsters have done a great job replacing the three-headed monster.
2. What has surprised you most about UConn?
The Huskies are always intense defensively. But that intensity never wavers, and UConn's defensive stamina and consistency wears down opponents. That has been especially impressive this season, especially with so many freshmen and inexperienced (players who might not have gotten a lot of minutes last season) players out on the court. Some teams can't close out a game defensively, but the Huskies play hard for 40 minutes. They play the way coach Geno Auriemma wants and are one of the best physically defensive teams in the country.
3. What is UConn's biggest strength and weakness?
The strength is obvious: it's Diana Taurasi. Nobody in the country can do what she does offensively, whether it's shooting the ball or setting up her teammates. And her best assets -- her energy, confidence and leadership -- are the things that never show up in the box score. But Taurasi has taken a group of young, good players and made them think they're stars. On the court, she gives them the ball and puts them in positions where they can't fail, they can't help but look good. Taurasi has given her teammates the confidence to perform at that level.
There is no glaring weakness, and the only thing that is suspect is the unknown. Other than Taurasi, none of these players saw significant minutes last season at the Final Four. Conlon averaged 10 minutes in two games. Moore averaged 12 and Battle averaged six. Still, with four NCAA Tournament games behind them, the freshmen already have proved they can play under pressure. And this team did a great job of regrouping and refocusing after the loss to Villanova.
4. What does coach Geno Auriemma need to focus on?
Texas is playing incredibly well and this is going to be a tough matchup, especially in the paint and low post. UConn is quicker in the post; Texas has more muscle. But the real matchup for the Huskies might be Longhorns sophomore Heather Schreiber, who scored a career-high 32 points Tuesday. She's a Windthorst, Texas, native, but Schreiber's game has a European flair, and she's reminiscent of the NBA's Dirk Nowitzki or Toni Kukoc. She's big enough to post you, but also quick enough to take you off the dribble. And she's going to drag you just a little bit farther from the basket than you want to be. Texas Tech's Plenette Pierson, an absolutely great player, struggled time and again this season against Schreiber when she was forced to go out and guard her on the perimeter. So although Turner and Moore give UConn its first legitimate post presence in a couple years, they will be greatly tested. But their athleticism should help them against Schreiber, who's just very deceptive.
5. What does UConn need to do to win the NCAA title?
Staying out of foul trouble is key. Taurasi, Turner and freshman guard Ann Strother each had four fouls Tuesday, accounting for 12 of the team's 19 personal fouls. That's not a good stat. As a result, Taurasi played 31 minutes (she averaged 35 in her previous two games after the first-round blowout over Boston U.) and Strother was limited to 28, five short of what she averaged in UConn's past two outings. Taurasi needs to be able to play 40 minutes if needed.
The Huskies also must play good interior defense and get good rotation if they choose to double from the posts. And that means team defense is very important. And while Taurasi has carried and will continue to carry this team, her supporting cast needs to continue to step up.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.