Commentary

Who will step up alongside Maya Moore?

Graduation and injury turn Huskies into a team with vulnerabilities

Originally Published: November 7, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- After his team's exhibition home opener, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma took a microphone and thanked students in the section reserved for them along one baseline at Gampel Pavilion. As is Auriemma's wont, his thanks were delivered with some needling, the coach suggesting that some of the overly familiar faces might be missing the point that college is supposed to last for just four years.

[+] EnlargeTiffany Hayes
Scott Terna/US PresswireJunior Tiffany Hayes' improved midrange jumper and willingness to be more of a leader are keys this season.

For once, he missed the punch line. Because if you don't believe him, just look at his team.

When Team USA took the court under Auriemma's watch in the FIBA World Championship for Women earlier this fall, the national team's roster included three players who totaled 193 starts during the University of Connecticut's record 78-game winning streak: Tina Charles, Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore. When the Huskies seek to extend their streak in the regular-season opener against Holy Cross on Nov. 14, the entire active roster will include players responsible for just 134 starts in that same span.

That's not a lot of past for a team looking to make history.

Connecticut enters the season as the team to beat not so much because no one managed to do it in either of the past two seasons but because the Huskies still have Moore, the nation's No. 1 player and a member of the national team that won gold in the Czech Republic. Proving themselves the nation's No. 1 team over the long haul of five months, against challenges from Baylor, Stanford, Duke -- all of which the Huskies face in the regular season -- and others will have at least as much to do with a largely unfamiliar cast as with the star it surrounds.

After losing Charles and Kalana Greene to graduation, along with reserves Kaili McLaren, Meghan Gardler and Jacquie Fernandes, then losing guard Caroline Doty to a torn ACL this summer, Connecticut is one superstar, five freshmen and a whole lot of opportunity. Every team talks about forgetting history and worrying only about the present. Not every team has to learn that history before it can forget it.

"The old teams, the old history, it's gone," Moore said. "This is what we have. And everybody is going to have to come in and bring something. We can't just depend on the reputation of the program or what people have done or what you've heard or what you've thought. You have to come in, contribute and know when you're in the game, things have to happen."

It begins, of course, with Moore, who might carry as much name recognition in the public at large as Diana Taurasi, Lauren Jackson, Candace Parker or any other WNBA star, a state of affairs that perhaps hasn't been true in the men's game since the days of Lew Alcindor. There will be times when Connecticut needs Moore to take over the way she did in the early minutes of the second half against Stanford in the national championship game, when she scored 11 points in less than seven minutes to help turn an eight-point halftime deficit into a five-point lead en route to victory.

Forget the team pursuing what is only marginally more than meaningless as it nears the UCLA men's 88-game winning streak, a mark that doesn't and needn't translate across time and circumstance. It's Moore who can cement a place in the history of her game as at least Taurasi's equal in the Nutmeg State and quite possibly the best who ever played in college. That she is both part of and yet beyond her collegiate surroundings was only emphasized by her absence for a portion of the team's preseason preparations as national team duties took her away from Storrs.

[+] EnlargeBria Hartley
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteBecause she'll likely spend time at point guard, Bria Hartley might be the freshman most poised to make an immediate impact at UConn, coach Geno Auriemma says.

But if her goal is to pursue a legacy and hope team success follows, it could all start to smoke like a car battery connected to the wrong terminals.

"If Maya's goal in the next seven months is to be the greatest player in the history of UConn basketball, I think that's misguided," Auriemma said. "If her goal is to make sure we have the best team in the country, then the rest will take care of itself."

It will help if she was a partner in Tiffany Hayes. Entering her junior season, Hayes is a fixture on preseason watch lists, including those for the Naismith and Wooden awards and the Wade Trophy. There aren't many other guards on those lists who ranked fourth on their own team in scoring last season, but, to be fair, there also aren't many guards who can match her range or her first step. One of the reasons Connecticut won the first 77 games of its streak by double digits was that on those rare occasions when opponents did have success against Connecticut's more senior stars, Hayes seized the opportunity to shine, as she did with 20 points at Oklahoma last season.

"If Tiffany were to play like an All-American, and do all those things All-Americans do and do them every night, then we've got a chance to win a lot of games," Auriemma said. "And she's got a chance to be a first-team All-American."

Hayes isn't going to morph into Montgomery or Greene overnight when it comes to filling a leadership role -- it's not clear who on the team is going to speak up on a consistent basis, and, more importantly, it's even less clear who has earned the privilege of being listened to. But, along with senior guard Lorin Dixon, Hayes had a chance to take the lead when Moore was out of the mix this fall. Accepting that responsibility, like embracing the attention she'll receive from opposing defenses by working on her midrange jumper in the offseason, might determine how she fares in her new role.

"I think it's going to happen; it's going to have to happen," Moore said. "I think she has had a couple of years where she's been able to see someone like Tina and myself and Renee just come through and really step up as leaders. She's one of those people who can do it, in her actions first and foremost, which is most important -- to do it by example. But she continues to work on being a verbal leader.

"While I was away, I think it was a good time for her to really have to work some of those things out and learn and develop and kind of be thrown into the fire during the preseason. I think she's doing a great job. Just playing pickup with her, she's still Tiffany, you know -- now she's Tiffany with a pull-up jumper."

The other key returnees are Dixon and sophomore Kelly Faris. An unsung part of last year's postseason dominance precisely because she did so much without taking or needing shots, Faris steps into an expanded offensive role this season, perhaps especially important in the early going as the freshmen find their footing. And, in her own way -- i.e., much more quietly -- she has a chance to be this team's Greene, a player who can light a fire by jumping in a passing lane, getting an offensive rebound among the trees or taking a charge.

[+] EnlargeKelly Faris
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesKelly Faris was the lone UConn freshman last season. Now, there are five rookies on the roster.

Per 40 minutes last season as a freshman, she averaged 7.8 rebounds, 2.6 steals and 0.7 blocks. Per 40 minutes, Greene averaged 7.2 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 0.5 blocks.

"I have to be more consistent with my shot, definitely more of an offensive threat," Faris said. "Last year, I didn't really have to be because we had more options. This year, we obviously lost a lot of options."

The Huskies also gained some; it's just not clear quite what they are yet. Faris was the lone freshman last season and provided exactly what that team required. Chances are lightning won't strike five times in the same place, but it needs to strike at least two or three times. Center Stefanie Dolson was the only member of this year's freshman class in the starting lineup for the first exhibition game, but point guard Bria Hartley and forward Samarie Walker both appear to be candidates for regular minutes from the outset (which is not to say Michala Johnson, still rounding into form after an ACL tear last winter, and Lauren Engeln are out of the mix).

Beyond talent, the freshmen fit needs that Connecticut must fill. There's no replacing Charles, but Dolson is a big body with plenty of skill, and Walker already shows signs of a nose for rebounds after being slowed by a hamstring injury early in the preseason. And with Doty out for the season, Hayes more comfortable off the ball and Dixon a sleeper of a senior but not someone who is going to play 40 minutes a night, Hartley needs to be able to ditch the learner's permit and drive the offense.

"I think Bria Hartley, because of her talent level and because of the position she's going to be asked to play, is probably in the best position of any of them to really affect the game," Auriemma said as official practices got under way in October.

It's easily obscured by the shadow Moore casts, but this is a team with vulnerabilities, if not necessarily a vulnerable team. And that in turn makes it a more interesting team. The unanswered question the past two years was what flaw did the Huskies have? The question this year is which flaws will they overcome?

What's not new are the name on the front of the jersey and the target on the back of it. So even if it's not clear just yet what this team is beyond Moore, it is clear the goal is an entirely familiar one.

"I think when you come into this program and you play here, you have to expect to always have the target on your back; I think that was built a long time ago," Faris said. "I still think we have the target on our back. I'm sure there are still people out there who think we aren't going to be as good. But honestly, that's not really part of it. We don't really pay attention to all of that. We just do what we know we need to do; we come into practice every day and get done what we need to get done.

"That's how this program works."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.