- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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There's something missing on the campus of the University of Connecticut this fall.
The rolling hills and bucolic farmland of the state's eastern realms still greet visitors on the drive to Storrs, and guitar chords and incense still waft out of dorm windows on the walk to Gampel Pavillion. But not everything is as it has been. The crowds might still turn up in droves, but Connecticut is no longer the center of the universe in women's hoops.
The reigning national champs call Waco, Texas, home, and Kim Mulkey-Robertson's Baylor Lady Bears are just one of eight teams that open the season ranked ahead of Connecticut in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.
Eight. It's a fitting number, considering last season ended short of the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, a place UConn fans (and even UConn dissenters) had grown to think of as the team's birthright.
Call it a lack of perspective, if you will. After all, the Huskies are still in the top 10, still coming off a 25-win season and still get plenty of attention from the national media (guilty).
Then again, Napoleon still ruled France for a couple of years after getting his frozen army kicked out of Russia. He just didn't scare anyone anymore.
Just 19 months removed from their last title, Geno Auriemma's Huskies no longer lead the way in women's college basketball. And they likely won't regain their perch atop the game until they find a point guard capable of leading them.
Six players on this season's roster are listed exclusively as guards, and only one, fourth-year junior Nicole Wolff, has been on the bench, let alone recorded an assist, any later in the season than a regional semifinal. That's a problem for a program that rose to prominence in part because steady floor generals such as Jen Rizzotti, Sue Bird and Maria Conlon knew exactly how to get the most out of stars like Rebecca Lobo, Nykesha Sales and Diana Taurasi.
Actually, it's a problem that dates back to Taurasi herself. The John Lennon of the state's basketball-playing Beatles, Taurasi frequently ran the offense as some sort of point-everything in winning three national titles, with Conlon supporting when necessary and spotting up when not. But with those two in place for so many years, the point guard pipeline dried up.
That lack of an established order of succession in the backcourt placed an inordinate amount of pressure on whomever Auriemma recruited to replace Taurasi and Conlon. The fact that freshmen Ketia Swanier and Mel Thomas were asked to carry much of the burden is almost incidental; whoever filled the role had the deck stacked against them from the start.
And struggle the two freshmen -- as well as Wolff -- did for much of last season. Sometimes described (as only the hyperbolic language of recruiting material can manage) as the best pure shooter ever recruited by Auriemma, Thomas shot just 31 percent from behind the arc while failing to find a home in Conlon's role as a combo point-shooting guard. And Swanier, handed the starting job at the beginning of the season, mixed flashes of brilliance with long periods of inconsistency on her way to 69 assists, 44 turnovers and a limited role off the bench by the end of the season.
Despite lacking either Swanier's quickness or Thomas' range, Wolff ended up the team's most reliable option at point guard, even though it's not her most natural position. Even so, she didn't lead UConn in assists last season. That title went to Ann Strother, who entered the season with Wade Trophy aspirations but finished it shooting just 41 percent from the field, including a 2-for-8 performance against Stanford in the Sweet 16 loss.
In short, UConn's instability at point forced Strother to play the role of Taurasi, taking primary responsibility for both scoring big baskets and putting others in position to score. The 6-foot-3 Strother is a gifted player, possessing the kind of nimbleness and outside range rarely found in someone her size. But she is not Diana Taurasi. Asked to do everything last year, she appeared to wilt under the pressure, shooting 38 percent in the NCAA Tournament.
And therein lies the rub. In Strother, Barbara Turner, Charde Houston and potentially Brittany Hunter (depending on how the former 2003 Parade national high school player of the year rebounds after a year off following knee surgery and a transfer from Duke), the Huskies have as much explosiveness and offensive talent as any team in the country. But who will get them the ball?
Enter freshman Renee Montgomery, who joined seniors Strother, Turner, Wilnett Crockett and Wolff (their academic classmate) in the starting lineup against the Houston Jaguars in the team's exhibition opener at the Hartford Civic Center Nov. 1. The play was sloppy all around, but if a team ever looked less than sloppy in its first exhibition, it would surely be grounds for an NCAA investigation into illegal summer practices. Montgomery, along with the rest of the first unit, was summarily yanked when trailing at the first timeout, but she returned to log 11 points, four steals, two assists and four turnovers in 26 minutes. For her part, Swanier recorded two assists and three turnovers in 15 minutes off the bench.
And Strother again led the team in assists, dishing out four while shooting just 3 of 12 from the floor in 30 minutes.
It was only an exhibition game on the opening day of November, but even allowing for jitters, unfamiliarity and faerie sprites, it was an eerily similar performance to many UConn games last season. The Huskies eased to victory in a game not nearly as close as the 71-65 score indicated, mostly through constant defensive pressure from a rotation that easily runs 10 players deep and the individual offensive brilliance of Houston. Which is all well and good until the Huskies play an elite team unfazed by that pressure, or the enigmatic Houston has one of her "other" games.
Intangibles are a dangerous thing, easy to spot in victory and easy to pick apart in a loss, but always existing only in the eye of the beholder. Still, it's difficult to look back at players like Rizzotti, Bird, Taurasi and even the battle-tested Conlon and not see this current team as a collection of immensely gifted parts without a rudder on the court. Rutgers has it with Cappie Pondexter, North Carolina has it with Ivory Latta and Tennessee found it in Alexis Hornbuckle toward the end of last season. All three teams play the Huskies this season and all three begin the season ranked ahead of them in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.
Napoleon's dominance over Europe didn't survive his failure in Russia in part because he failed to stop a bad defeat from turning into a disorganized rout of a retreat through the depths of a Russian winter. Auriemma took his own lumps last winter from the likes of Arizona State, Rutgers and Notre Dame. But before anyone gets ready to ship Auriemma off to some island off the coast of Maine, he'll have a chance to prove that last year's learning experience was precisely that. For everyone involved.
Montgomery might prove to be the answer, learning on the job and taking control of the team by March. After the exhibition game, the coach said of his starting point guard, "Some players play in practice real well. Some players play in September real well. Some play in games real well. I think she is kind of a gutsy kid who likes the spotlight and likes playing. We were tracking how many times we deflected the ball. She had eight of them in the first half. She seemed to be everywhere. I think that is infectious. That starts to get more people involved. We start to feed off of that. I think that last 10 minutes of the first half is pretty much what I want her to build on."
Or Auriemma might find the right combination in a platoon of Montgomery and Swanier. But as the season begins, it's not clear what the answer is, or if the answer even resides on campus. And as long as that's the case, UConn will remain in unfamiliar territory outside the spotlight.
UConn doesn't need to find its magic again. The Huskies just need to find a point guard.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.