I got next: A surprise starter for UConn basketball

I think the majority of the people that click on this article will assume that I am writing about the Men’s team. Sorry. Years ago, some troll went off when I sarcastically asked if UConn fielded a men’s team. I was well aware that UConn has a very storied team, full of NBA players like Kemba Walker, Rip Hamilton, James Bouknight, et al. I am aware that the Men’s side has a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Calhoun; shoot, I wrote how he had one of my all time favorite press conferences. Still, I will die on the hill that UConn is a Women’s Basketball school. Aside from Tennessee and Pat Summit, one could argue that UConn is women’s basketball.

All that to say, I’m going to talk about the team that I love the most: UConn Women. UConn is set to make another run at the National Championship as they bring back three starters in former POY Paige Bueckers, freshman phenom Azzi Fudd, and an Energizer Bunny in Aaliyah Edwards. Plus, they will again, on paper, have a ton of depth with Dorka Juhasz, Nika Muhl, and Caroline Ducharme, all of whom played major minutes last year. UConn also brings in two Top Five recruits in Ice Brady and Ayanna Patterson. The team picked up Lou Lou Senechal from the portal and will hopefully see a healthy Aubrey Griffen and a focused Amari Deberry.

While no one with a shred of intelligence questions whether or not UConn should be on the short list of title favorites, almost everyone has questions about the starting lineup. Paige and Azzi are locks to start. Conventional wisdom would convince us that Aaliyah will start as well, after starting 26 games last year. Most people would assume that Dorka, with her 15 UConn starts last year, would get a starting spot, but there are legit questions on the health of her wrist and overall conditioning at the beginning of the season. Nika Muhl is also an interesting player in that she has 34 starts over her two years in Storrs; however, her role seemed to diminish last year. We can’t forget that Ducharme started 11 games until her head injury last year. Despite a great group of options listed above, no one is looking at a very likely starter.

What do Bria Hartley, Steph Dolson, Breanna Stewart, Kia Nurse, Katie Lou Samuelson, Christyn Williams, and Anna Makurat all have in common? They all started a significant number of games as a freshman. Geno has a tendency to play a freshman early and often. Obviously, we have seen this the last two years with Azzi and Paige, but that would miss out on a ton of other examples. I was only able to find reliable stats as far back as the 2010-11 season, but there is a obvious pattern in games started:

2022 Azzi Fudd 17 of 25 games

2021 Paige Bueckers all games

2020 Anna Makurat 14 of 32 games

2019 Christyn Williams all games

2018 None (Megan Walker played the 7th most minutes on the team)

2017 Crystal Dangerfield 6 starts but 24 minutes a game

2016 Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier combine for 31 starts

2015 Kia Nurse 36 of 39 games

2014 Saniya Chung 4 starts

2013 Breanna Stewart 14 starts

2012 None

2011 Bria Hartley and Steph Dolson all games

While the amount of starts varies, it is obvious that a freshman seems to get significant minutes. Some would point out a couple of glaring holes to my argument, but a closer look might clear this up. In 2018, Megan Walker did not get a start; however, she was behind two All Americans in Samuelson and Collier and two players that would have been All Americans on a different team: Gabi Williams and Kia Nurse. This team had six future WNBA players, so breaking into the lineup was out of the question. Yet, Geno did play her above multiple returning players and played her only five minutes a game less than Azura Stevens, one of the WNBA players.

The 2013-14 campaign looks like another blip, but this one is clearer than ’18. While Saniya Chung only started four games, she did get more starts and more minutes that Bria Hartley- you know, Bria Hartley that holds the WNBA record for most 25+ games off the bench. The fact that Chung got more minutes than one WNBA vet and only played one minute less than Tiffany Hayes (nine years in the WNBA) shows a lot about Geno’s desire to get the freshman early reps. Interestingly, Chung would only get two starts as a sophomore and play less minutes as a Junior than as a freshman. Saniya Chung’s experience is one of the most glaring examples of Geno pushing young kids into the driver’s seat early, as she both benefitted and hindered by this tendency.

The only real hole in the argument is 2012. Brianna Banks was the only freshman on a team that was loaded with returning stars like Hartley, Hayes, Kelly Faris, Steph Dolson, Caroline Doty, Kiah Stokes, and Kaleena Mosqueda Lewis, a group that has a combine 34 seasons in the WNBA. Banks is a unique situation in that she never found her niche at UConn and ended up transferring after her junior year. The 2012 year seems to be more a situation where a great player and person was not the right fit for UConn more than anything else.

All of this history has a point: Geno likes to play a freshman early. Conventional wisdom states that the starting lineup will be Juhasz, Edwards, Ducharme, Fudd, and Bueckers. History, though, shows that either Brady or Patterson will get some starts. It is hard to tell which of the two will get the nod. As a true post, Brady could get a spot early if Dorka is not ready physically to start the season. Patterson is renowned for her freak jumping ability and two hand jams. The start will most likely go to the player that spaces the court the best. Last year, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Edwards lacked the shooting chops to earn respect from defenses. The offense at times looked labored due to defenders sagging off the bigs and shutting down the cutting lanes that have to be open for a flowing offense. I have had a hard time finding video on either player, but most of what is out there points to Patterson being more of a low post threat. Scouting reports on Brady’s outside are silent on mid range or deep attempts. I am going to give a nod to Patterson for the starting spot as scouts mention her having a midrange game. The interesting question is whose spot. Let’s say Dorka comes back ready to go; her outside shooting is too important to not start. Ducharme’s spot? There is no way that Geno can pull off an offense predicated on passing into the lane via cutting with three non-shooting bigs. Will Aaliyah lose her starting spot? Remember how slow she started this last year after playing with Team Canada? Guess where she spent most of the summer; yep, she was with Team Canada again. Geno did not speak highly of Aaliyah’s growth last summer. Will last year presage this year, kind of a deja vu? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the starting lineup will be Juhasz, Patterson, Ducharme, Fudd, and Bueckers.

The fun thing about UConn is that they always get top players that come in ready to play. Next year, we will be having the same discussion as KK Arnold, Ashlyn Shade, and Qadence Samuels are all highly rated recruits ready. So the year doesn’t matter because we will always be waiting for “who’s next”.

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