UConn may have lost in back-to-back Final Fours, and the Huskies may have lost three key players, but they aren't paying attention to anyone who says their reign as a women's basketball's perennial power is over.
Heading into their season opener against Ohio State on Sunday, the Huskies are shrugging off the preseason talk that this team might not be up to the usual UConn standards. Despite having more odds stacked against them than usual -- like starting two inexperienced players in Christyn Williams and Megan Walker, who will play their first game as starters -- UConn is still confident in its abilities and is anxious for the season to begin.
Yes, the loss of Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams and Azura Stevens caused the Huskies to fill key roles with inexperienced players. Yes, the defense isn't as good as it was last year. Yes, they're still working through a transitional period and searching for consistency. But underdogs? To UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph, the idea is absurd.
The coaches and players don't see it that way, especially not the most experienced players on the team -- Napheesa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield and Katie Lou Samuelson.
"That's what people are saying that we are," Ralph said. "We don't feel that way about ourselves, and so those older kids don't feel that they're the underdogs. I think they know how good they can be, but we just have to be that every day, and that's where it's frustrating for them at times and for our staff at times, because we're not that every day and we need to be much more consistent."
There's still a lot of work to be done before March, Ralph said, but UConn isn't having a "down" year, as she's heard and read from others. They've been at the top for so long for a reason, and Collier, Dangerfield and Samuelson have years of experience that can help lead the Huskies back to the Final Four.
"Those three ... understand what's down the road," Ralph said. "They understand how hard it is to get to the Final Four and to win championships and conference championships. That's hard. It's not easy to do, and a lot of times our teams make it look easy so they understand what's down the road. I think the frustrating part right now is while we can be great at times, we can be really bad at times, too. We need to find a level of consistency of greatness across the board, and those three are involved in that."
For freshmen Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Williams -- who are both expected to get significant playing time -- this year is going to be a new experience with pressures they've never faced before. The exhibition against Vanguard was the biggest crowd either of them had played in front of.
Nothing can prepare them for what they're walking into as freshmen, Ralph said. The crowds are only going to get bigger and so are the stakes. UConn, Ralph said, is everyone's national championship game.
"I don't think they understand what's coming after them," Ralph said. "... You read and listen to what people are talking about in terms of our team this year and how we're supposedly down. So people are going to come at their necks, and I don't know that that's ever happened to them before at this level with this many good teams and good players that are just going to come right after them. I'm excited to see how they handle it, to be honest. We'll see."
Helping the freshmen and players with less experience acclimate to the intensity level of UConn's games is something Collier, Samuelson and Dangerfield are focusing on heading into Sunday's season opener. Ohio State is a team that's hard to scout, as it's made up of graduate transfers and freshmen, so UConn is focusing on itself.
For Samuelson, that means leaning on the experience she gained her sophomore year when the Huskies were in a similar situation with people doubting their talent heading into the season.
"It's a different feeling than my sophomore year," Samuelson said. "Going into my sophomore year, it really felt like people were like, 'Yeah, they're done.' But I don't know if I'm just tuning out the outside world or whatever, but it just feels like me, Phee and Crystal are the older guys and we have to step up bigger than we have before. Sophomore year, it was just like, 'Welp, let's see what they do,' and we kind of all had to figure out different roles.
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"This year we understand our roles. There's not that much unknown for the three of us. We know what we need to bring every single day. Sophomore year, it was like we didn't know what we were going to do until we started playing and everyone started working together, but now it's just making sure we have five people on the court that are always connected and contributions from Christyn and Meg on a consistent basis, and I think they've been doing more of that."
UConn will start its season against Ohio State at noon on Sunday at Gampel Pavilion. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
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 email@example.com.