Crystal Dangerfield thought she knew what she was walking into 12 months ago.
One of the top incoming freshman basketball players in the country, Dangerfield figured she was prepared for life at UConn. But like so many freshmen before her, she had no idea what was ahead.
"There's college basketball," Dangerfield said. "And then there's UConn basketball."
As she prepares for her sophomore season, Dangerfield is different. From workouts and pickup games with her teammates early in the summer through practices in advance of the team's trip to Italy, she carried herself with more confidence and played with a high level of effort.
Dangerfield displayed poise and confidence when she played for the silver medal-winning U.S. national team in the FIBA U19 World Cup in Italy last month. She was the most experienced player on the roster and she showed leadership, on and off the court.
Geno Auriemma, who prodded her throughout her freshman year, was impressed by what he witnessed. Auriemma was in Italy for the tournament and saw something in Dangerfield.
"Crystal's grown up a lot," Auriemma said. "She's made about a 180 from last year, which is what you hope from freshman to sophomore year."
Dangerfield averaged 6.1 points in 31 games as a freshman, a season filled with ups (19 points against Baylor) and downs (benched in the second half at Nebraska). There were games when Dangerfield showed her skilled passing and ball-handling, but she was also prone to mistakes.
That's what fans saw. Auriemma and his coaches saw a player struggling with the pace and demands of practice. It wasn't unfamiliar — Auriemma said it often takes an entire season for freshmen to adjust.
If Dangerfield could go back in time and impart some advice to herself, what would she say?
"Practice harder," Dangerfield said. "I didn't figure it out until late and I barely figured it out then. So I feel like if I had caught it early, I feel like last year would have gone a lot better. This year, the practice that we've had so far, they've just felt different. I feel like if I can continue that through preseason and once the games start, we'll have a really good year."
Her teammates and coaches have noticed.
"That was evident in the summer," Katie Lou Samuelson said. "We saw that within pickup [games] and workouts with Crystal, that she kind of made a big adjustment. And then in practice, she's just kind of picked it up from there."
Auriemma said he was impressed with how she managed the game for the U19 team. As a point guard on a team of inexperienced players, she was asked to fill a significant role.
"People were looking at her to be more of a leader type, which she wasn't any of that for us last year," Auriemma said. "So it was a good role for her and I thought she was really, really good over there and she's carried it over."
One of her teammates on that national team? Megan Walker, one of UConn's talented incoming freshmen. Walker and Dangerfield talked a lot about what it's like to endure a freshman season under Auriemma.
"She told me how difficult it was," Walker said. "She told me you just have to keep fighting and always want to get better. Work at the level of intensity that the other players are working."
Dangerfield is also offering advice to the program's three other freshmen, Mikayla Coombs, Lexi Gordon and Andra Espinoza-Hunter.
"I tell them everything that I did wrong and try to help them not do it the same," Dangerfield said. "I've told them every single mistake that I made last year. I just don't want them to do through the same thing because freshman year was hard. You're away from home, it's just a different atmosphere. You already have the pressure of being ... this UConn basketball, not just college basketball. So it's a different level than high school as it is, but being here and what the standard is, is different."
Dangerfield is not the only player with recent experience as a struggling freshman — sophomores Kayla Irwin and Molly Bent also had challenging first seasons and both struggled to earn minutes. Dangerfield averaged 24 minutes, partly the product of her team's lack of depth.
This year, depth won't be an issue. Four starters return and two experienced transfers (Azura Stevens and Batouly Camara) are eligible. The freshmen will battle for playing time and Dangerfield will be looking to carve out minutes in the backcourt.
And given her quickness and ability to shoot from the perimeter, Dangerfield could be an important player on a team with versatile, athletic players. This much is clear: Dangerfield's approach and demeanor are different.
Dangerfield said she's outside of her own head, playing freely and not overthinking her game. That's what happens when the effort is consistent.
"Just understanding what [Auriemma's] definition of playing hard really is," she said. "Freshman year was tough and I don't want that to happen again, so just being able to make the little changes that turn into big changes out on the court and off the court. I hope it will help me in my sophomore year."
This article is written by Paul Doyle from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.