- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Geno Auriemma sees recruiting a bit like winemaking.
“Some years, winemakers make better wine than other years,” Auriemma said recently, “because they have better grapes to work with.”
By the time they leave Storrs, the 2020-21 group of freshmen could wind up as one of the best batches Auriemma’s had in years.
The class is headlined by point guard Paige Bueckers, the top recruit in the country. But forward Aaliyah Edwards and guard Nika Muhl have also carved out significant roles for themselves on a team that returns four contributors from last year — and the class as a whole seems to have revitalized the team and staff with its competitiveness and energy.
“It’s very difficult to get one player that’s going to be a standout great player for you for four years. Those don’t come along very often,” Auriemma said. "Then if you have two, that’s where national championships come from, when you can put classes together where you’ve got two super impactful players over the course of four years. So having two or three players of impact, and then those rare, rare, rare years where you may find yourself with four, then you’ve got that magical class of Asjha [Jones], Tamika [Williams], Sue [Bird] and Swin [Cash]. But they’re just so hard to come by.
“The fact that I think, right off the bat, we’ve got freshmen that can contribute and contribute right away, and they’re only going to get better and better and better. And the best thing that I like about them is their work ethic is never questioned, which is also unusual for first-year kids.”
“They’re an interesting group,” added associate head coach Chris Dailey, who also serves as UConn’s recruiting coordinator. “I think they’re willing to try to figure things out, they’re willing to work. But there’s just a lot that they have to know and a lot that they have to experience, and that’s going to take time.”
‘If you aspire to be great, it has to be hard’
Prior to the 2020 recruits signing last November, UConn had a couple mixed-bag classes. Crystal Dangerfield was the No. 3 recruit in the country in 2016, but the only one in the top 100 that UConn signed. The 2017 Husky class had four top 30 players, headlined by No. 1 Megan Walker, but three transferred and Walker left early for the WNBA Draft.
Christyn Williams (No. 1 in 2018) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (No. 5) were highly touted. But after the Huskies missed out on some top targets in 2019, they were left with a one-person class (Aubrey Griffin, No. 21) until signing Anna Makurat in the spring.
Auriemma and his staff did little differently on the recruiting trail beyond looking more closely at European prospects to fill needs (Muhl is from Croatia, Makurat from Poland). Some years you just get luckier in getting the kids you want, Auriemma says, and some classes of high school players are simply stronger than others.
UConn benefitted from both these factors when constructing this year’s freshmen class, ranked No. 2 in the country by espnW. The team’s eventual signees, which also included 5-11 forward Mir McLean and 6-5 forward Piath Gabriel, impressed the coaching staff from the get-go.
“We were well aware of that competitive spirit, that competitive drive,” Auriemma said of the freshmen.
Just as important, the appeal was mutual. Contending for national championships every year requires players to buy into Auriemma and Dailey’s demanding system, and incoming players know what they’re signing up for.
“If you aspire to be great, or you aspire to win the national championship, it has to be hard," Dailey said. "If it were easy, everybody would do it. I felt like with this group, they were players that wanted to come here and wanted to be here and wanted to be part of this. And that always makes recruiting easier.”
The new arrivals sense in one another a like-mindedness, a shared approach.
“We’re a very competitive freshmen class,” Muhl said. “I knew that before I came here. I’m really blessed to be a part of it, and I can’t wait to work with all the freshmen.”
A learning curve
The freshmen have spent the last four months getting acclimated to college basketball — at least within the confines of Werth Champions Center.
There’s certainly a learning curve that comes with that, even for heralded prospects like Bueckers. Dailey estimates the former No. 1 recruit turned the ball over six times during her first workout.
As the freshmen find their footing, the core objective for them remains simple, Dailey says: find what they can bring to the floor and how they can bring it. It won’t be scoring 20+ points per game like they did in high school. But each player still has a way to make an impact.
That starts all the way down the depth chart with 5-8 freshman walk-on Autumn Chassion, whom Dailey says makes pretty much every open shot she gets in drills. Gabriel is expected to face a steeper learning curve this season, but appears eager to get better (“she hasn’t even realized some of the things that eventually she’s going to be able to do,” Dailey says).
McLean has been described by Auriemma as a great defender, a “tremendous” rebounder and “athletic as anybody we’ve had.” Dailey notes the freshman has dethroned sophomore Aubrey Griffin as the team’s fastest player in sprints.
Then there’s the trio of Bueckers, Edwards and Muhl, all of whom have distinguished themselves as the most college-ready.
Auriemma makes light of the onslaught of attention on Bueckers — he jokingly calls her “Paige Kardashian” — but she has thus far lived up to expectations in practice. And she’s already earned a unanimous preseason Big East freshman of the year nod to go with a spot on the Naismith Award watch list.
Muhl and Edwards may have flown under the radar as international players (Edwards was ranked No. 23 by espnW while Muhl was outside the top 100), but it may not stay that way for long.
Edwards, a 6-3 forward from Canada, is a player Auriemma knew he wanted since the first time he watched her play. Her physicality, motor and ability to pick things up quickly have earned her enthusiastic reviews and even some early comparisons to Napheesa Collier.
Muhl, part of a crowded backcourt, has stood out by creating for others. Her physicality and intense play remind Dailey of a young Jen Rizzotti.
“She’s a bull in the china shop,” Dailey said. “She’s going to get to where she wants to go, whether she has to go through the wall, over the wall, or around it, but she’s not afraid to go through it. ... We haven’t had that in a while.”
‘Long process’ ahead
Freshmen constitute more than half of a UConn roster that’s devoid of seniors.
So even if there’s lots to like about the present and future in Storrs, there may be bumps along the way in having to rely on so many first-year players.
But all of that is acceptable if it’s met with constant learning and improvement come March.
“Your team doesn’t get better unless individuals get better,” Dailey said. “Individuals get better by spending time on the things that they know they’re not good at. That’s how you build on it so that at the end of the year, we make sure that we’re better individually and better as a team than we are right now. That’s a long process, and then with six new freshmen, it’s even longer.”
Alexa Philippou can be reached at email@example.com
©2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.