- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Connecticut can win the NCAA title if: Charde Houston breaks loose
Ann Strother was at her best in the NCAA Tournament playing understudy to Diana Taurasi on two University of Connecticut championship teams. For the Huskies to win a title as Strother's career winds down this season, it wouldn't hurt if she could step back and reprise that role at times.
But is Charde Houston ready for a soliloquy on college basketball's biggest stage? And after a season of frustration with his enigmatic sophomore, does coach Geno Auriemma have the patience and trust to let her deviate from the script?
Strother led the Huskies in scoring this season, just as she did last year. But break down the numbers to Connecticut's seven games against ranked opponents and Houston moves from fourth to first on the scoring charts. In those seven games, Houston shot 51 percent from the floor; Strother shot 33 percent.
That sounds bad for the senior from Colorado, but it's not an indictment of her talent. It's more a reflection of the fact that the two things at which she excels on offense -- using her blend of size and quickness on the perimeter to beat slower defenders off the dribble and hitting open jump shots -- tend to be less readily available when an elite defensive team puts its most athletic defenders on her. It's part of what led to Connecticut's downfall against Stanford in last year's NCAA Tournament, when Strother managed just two field goals in 29 minutes.
All of which is where Houston enters the picture. Players like Seimone Augustus and Candace Parker make it a debate, but there might not be a more gifted player with the ball in her hands than Houston. Unfortunately, defense, passing and moving without the ball remain works in progress, which may explain why she almost certainly leads the team in inducing apoplectic fits out of the coach. It's that battle of wills, or battle within Auriemma's will, that makes Connecticut such a difficult team to project in March.
Physical conditioning and durability were issues early in the season for Houston, but mental durability is just as big an issue at this point. Houston averaged just 17.2 minutes per game in the regular season, but that average climbed to 21.1 minutes in the seven games against ranked foes (including just seven minutes against North Carolina, when she was battling injuries). Time and again, Auriemma found himself forced to call on Houston's offensive potential to stay in big games (she scored 19 in a loss to Tennessee and 22 against LSU in Connecticut's biggest win of the season). But as evidenced by the Big East Tournament, where she was largely a non-factor for three games, Houston hasn't been able to build on those glimpses of brilliance.
Even great teams have flaws; it's why going undefeated is such a big deal. But championship teams find ways to trump those flaws, and Houston is the best trump card in Auriemma's hand.
If freshman point guard Renee Montgomery continues to evolve as a dynamic lead guard, Brittany Hunter is able to contribute 10-15 active minutes each game in the post and Strother plays like she did in the second half of the Big East final against West Virginia, the Huskies could very well get to Boston by sticking with the plan that produced 29 wins this season.
But to beat the heavyweights and win two more games for the title, Auriemma might have to throw caution to the wind and hope Houston does as well with his team in her hands as she does with the ball.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
13dBonnie D. Ford