UConn Women: How far can a Cadillac take them?
HARTFORD – New London Day columnist and resident wit Mike DiMauro turned to me during the second half of UConn’s 74-58 loss to Baylor Thursday night at the XL Center and tossed this question out.
“If UConn’s best teams were a Maserati what would you call this team?”
Good question. I pondered for a minute and offered up, “a Lexus or a Cadillac.”
Quality cars. Cars that most college basketball programs would like to be driving. Cars that will drive you right into the top 10. Here’s the catch, however, not the normal UConn car. Closer to pedestrian.
But here’s the intrigue in it all – how far will a Lexus or Cadillac take you. On Jan. 11, not far enough by UConn standards. By March when it all counts, who knows. Geno will tell you, he doesn’t know.
Auriemma was at his honest and philosophical best after the Baylor game. He hasn’t sugar-coated this team since the beginning of the season. It’s not about being good or bad, this edition is about being different and with that brings an air of mystery uncommon in the UConn world.
“We’ve never been in this situation before,” said Auriemma. “We have never had this many players that we’re relying on that haven’t been exposed to this before.”
The Huskies are a team with an impressive upside and disturbing downside. Junior Megan Walker has developed into the stud everyone thought she could be when she arrived in the fall of 2017. Sophomore Christyn Williams has become the other steady star, able to get to the basket with or without a lane and the capability of draining it from long range despite a subpar shooting season to date from the perimeter. It was Walker and Williams who carried the Huskies against Baylor and assured it would still be a game midway through the fourth quarter.
After that the future is covered with a murky haze. No one would argue senior Crystal Dangerfield’s essential worth and immense talent. But there is an inconsistency partially fueled with a new need to score this year. Dangerfield was hard to find in the first half against Baylor with one basket on 1-of-6 shooting and two assists. The second half found what the Huskies needed and will need with 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting.
There is the Huskies’ strength – Walker, Williams and Dangerfield. How far the Lexus or Cadillac goes however, may be decided beyond that. Size is not a strength. Hello Olivia Nelson-Ododa. The rangy 6-foot-5 sophomore will be a key and she was a no-show against Baylor.
No points – 0 and six rebounds in 23 minutes of action. She had trouble getting off shots against Baylor All-American Lauren Cox. Not missing shots, that happens but getting off shots. Schooled may be harsh but she was educated.
When the season started I said Liv is one of the most key guys we need and tonight it just didn’t work out,” said Auriemma.
While Auriemma knows it will get better his displeasure with the performance wasn’t hard to find.
There is also the issue of Kayla Irwin. Hard-working, a comfort in that Huskies know what she will give them – the right pass, the good pick, the solid effort there is also the idea that starting forward isn’t what Irwin is here for.
“I don’t think on signing day I said I’m really, really excited Kayla’s going to be starting against Baylor for us,” said Auriemma. “It wasn’t her role. Her role was to come off the bench and give us 5-10 minutes. Now she’s playing 30 minutes a game and it’s almost unfair to the kid. But, she held her own for long stretches.”
As the season progresses there is the hope that Anna Makurat will find her comfort zone offensively and athletic but raw freshman Aubrey Griffin will continue to mature. That in itself is the beauty of the season still being young.
There are no illusions with this UConn team. It is different. Nobody is making plane reservations for the Final Four in New Orleans, seemingly a permanent part of the UConn season.
And UConn knows. Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said there are six teams that could win the National Championship and UConn was one of them. A short time later, Auriemma said, “We are not at the same level they are. We don’t have enough. When I heard that (ranked No. 1), said, “ ‘Oh my God.’ “
He chastised reporters for voting UConn No. 1 in the poll. He knows at this point that is folly.
All of which shouldn’t be mistaken for the idea that UConn can’t or won’t be there at the end. But there is so much uncertainty here. No returning All-Americans to lead them, teams out there with more talent.
“All I can do is get this team to be s good as it can by,” said Auriemma. I don’t know what that it. We’ll be better than this but come March, I don’t know. Right now we’re like a lot of teams in the country. “
So, the question is how far can the Lexus or Cadillac take them. That’s a lot of car in anybody’s playbook. But it is not the usual UConn car. So you wonder, Is it enough car?
What used to be a clear path to what March holds is now a hazy journey.