The UConn women's basketball team began practice last week, meeting three times to kick off the season.
The first practice was a little bit different from past years since coach Geno Auriemma made the decision after the end of last season that coaches wouldn't be scheduling workouts during the spring and summer. If players wanted to workout or practice, it would be up to them to make it happen. The thought was that it would bring back the joy of playing and the anticipation of actual practice.
Auriemma's decision seemed to pay off, with players showing up excited to get back to work. Based on what he's seen so far, there are positives but still a lot of work to be done. The bench needs to produce and the freshmen need to overcome the learning curve, but the vibe at practice is excited and determined.
"Like most early season practices there's a bunch of really good stuff and some not so good stuff," Auriemma said. "The players that we expected to be pretty good are pretty good, and there are ones that still have a lot of work to do..."
UConn's biggest concern early on will be addressing the holes they have to fill after the departure of Gabby Williams, Kia Nurse and Azura Stevens to the WNBA. As of now, Auriemma is unsure who will step up into starting roles, as well as who he can expect to regularly contribute off the bench.
"We're going into the practices where we know for certain that we have three players that are experienced, that have played a lot of basketball in Connecticut — Lou and Phee and Crystal — and then beyond that we probably have to identify who those other people are," Auriemma said. "I think it'll start emerging at some point in the next week or so. We'll get an idea of who can do what. It's one of those years where there's not a lot of certainty so that's kind of unusual."
While Auriemma is searching for players who can become key contributors on the team, freshmen Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa will be looking to overcome the struggles of transitioning from high school basketball to UConn basketball. During the summer Auriemma said he expected both to contribute to the team during the season, but at this point it's a matter of watching them in practice and deciding just how much they'll be able to help the team in their first season.
Williams has been fairly aggressive in her first few practices with the Huskies, Auriemma said. That aggression has helped her start to adapt faster, while Nelson-Ododa is naturally less aggressive. Auriemma said guards have an easier time adjusting so he understands that Nelson-Ododa will take a bit longer to become comfortable.
"[Practices] have been a learning experience," Nelson-Ododa said. "I definitely have to soak up a lot in a short amount of time, but each day it just keeps getting better and the coaches are definitely helping me through this. Each practice [the upperclassmen] help me. It's been a learning experience, but it's been good."
Despite the uncertainty surrounding this year's team, they seem to have a different energy. The team talked about it in the summer, saying they all felt closer and more intensely determined than the year before. On Friday night Auriemma said he can feel the different vibe around the team and it's possibly a result of having to hold each other accountable during the off season.
Whether this new vibe will translate into wins is still to be seen and, although it's a major positive, Auriemma isn't letting it cloud his vision.
"This isn't a couple years ago where come out of the bat, get on a plane, fly to Ohio State and win by 50," Auriemma said. "That's not the kind of team that we have this year."
This article is written by Kelli Stacy 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.