The Arizona women’s basketball team will take on the vaunted UConn Huskies in the Final Four on Friday in San Antonio with a trip to the national championship game on the line.
Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. PT on ESPN.
We wanted to know more about the Huskies before then, so we caught with Daniel Connolly of TheUConnBlog.com, our sister site, to get some more insight. Here’s the Q&A.
Ryan Kelapire: What were the expectations for this UConn team heading into the season and how has this season unfolded compared to them?
Daniel Connolly: Pretty much any season at UConn is national championship or bust, so in one sense expectations weren’t any different. Still, I think it was tough to figure out exactly how good this year’s team would be. The Huskies lost seven players — including their two top scorers — from last season and replaced them with six freshmen. There were legitimate questions and concerns about how much those freshmen could contribute right away to help out UConn’s four returning players plus Evina Westbrook, who sat out last year after transferring in from Tennessee. Considering how young they are (and the nature of playing in a global pandemic), they’ve probably exceeded expectations with how they’ve performed throughout the season. Having said that, I don’t think anybody is surprised that the Huskies are back in the Final Four, either.
RK: What are this team’s strengths and weaknesses?
DC: Biggest strength: Having Paige Bueckers, though I’ll talk about her more below. As a team, UConn dominates smaller opponents in the paint with 6-foot-5 junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa and 6-foot-3 freshman Aaliyah Edwards. Very few teams in the country have the size to handle those two and the Huskies just knocked one of them out.
The Huskies don’t have a ton of depth – just six players saw the court against Baylor, though that number will increase to seven if freshman guard Nika Mühl returns from a high ankle sprain – but all seven of those players can hurt you. There’s no weak link in the rotation. UConn’s defense has also improved substantially since and has only allowed one team to score more than 70 points since a loss to Arkansas in late January, which has been the turning point in the season.
As for weaknesses, the Huskies aren’t a great 3-point shooting team. It’s not so much that they can’t make them, they just struggle to do so with consistency. Some games they’ll make over 50 percent from beyond the arc and others they’ll be under 30 percent. You never really know how this team will shoot the ball in a given night. This is also a very young team with no seniors and just five upperclassmen, only two of whom have even been to a Final Four which is remarkable considering UConn has been to 13 straight. Obviously, neither has Arizona, but I feel like the Huskies probably have a lot more pressure on them to win this game. I’m interested to see how they handle it.
RK: Kind of along those same lines, when UConn has struggled this season (by their standards anyway), what have usually been the problems?
DC: I don’t know that there’s been one consistent problem. Against Tennessee and South Carolina, UConn struggled shooting the ball and Bueckers didn’t play great for portions of both games. Against Arkansas, the Huskies couldn’t defend and Nelson-Ododa had one of the worst games of her career. In the Elite Eight vs. Baylor, they struggled to keep the Bears off the offensive glass and turned the ball over too much. In general, Christyn Williams can sometimes disappear for stretches. Though UConn has improved a lot since the start of the year, there’s still a degree of unpredictability to this team.
RK: What makes Paige Bueckers so special and how can Arizona slow her down?
Bueckers is the best player in the country. She’s also in the midst of the greatest freshman season in UConn history. Bueckers leads the team in points, assists, steals and 3-point percentage and recently became the first freshman ever to win AP National Player of the Year. There are no holes in her game on offense and she can pretty much score at will – in the regular season, she scored 24 of the Huskies’ 30 points on 9-10 shooting in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime in games decided by single-digits. Shameless plug, but I recently wrote about what’s made Bueckers’ freshmen season so remarkable.
So how do you slow Bueckers down? I’m not sure anybody has figured that one out yet. She’s only failed to reach 10 points once and that was against Tennessee, when she still hit a game-clinching 3-pointer with 25 seconds left after twisting her ankle just a few minutes earlier. Even if she’s not scoring, Bueckers is still an elite passer, which allows her to set up her teammates for easy baskets as well. Bueckers is special and, in my opinion, won’t let UConn again lose this season.
RK: Other than Bueckers, which UConn players should Arizona know about and why?
In the frontcourt, Aaliyah Edwards has been a monster during the NCAA Tournament (14.5 points, 6.8 rebounds) and bullies smaller teams with her strength and physicality. She fits well on the floor with Nelson-Ododa who is more finesse-oriented compared and passes well in the post. Then there’s Williams, a former No. 1 recruit who suddenly transformed into a lockdown defender at the end of the regular season and is playing the best basketball of her career on both ends of the floor right now. Evina Westbrook does whatever the Huskies need from her, whether that’s scoring, shooting, rebounding, passing or defending. Aubrey Griffin comes off the bench and while she doesn’t score much, she’s supremely athletic and can be a nightmare for opposing teams on the glass and defensively. Mühl, who hasn’t played since suffering a high ankle sprain in the first round, is a pass-first, defensive guard from Croatia who often complains that defense is “so soft” in America and “everything I do on defense is a foul.”
RK: How do you think UConn will try to contain Aari McDonald and how successful do you think they can be?
I’d imagine Christyn Williams gets the main assignment, though it won’t be all her. UConn will switch a lot and mix in Westbrook and Mühl, if she’s healthy. Similar to Bueckers, I don’t really think anybody has figured out how to slow McDonald down. I imagine their gameplan will be similar to how they attacked Iowa’s Caitlin Clark: Don’t give up any easy looks and force the other four players on the court to score. If the Huskies can keep McDonald under 25 points, that’ll probably be viewed as a success.
RK: What is UConn fans’ perception of the Arizona program?
DC: I think UConn fans are probably just starting to learn about the incredible job Adia Barnes’ is doing at Arizona. It’s not like these two teams cross paths very often and the Pac-12 can be hard to find on TV sometimes, so I’m not sure how much UConn fans have really seen the Wildcats play. Geno Auriemma clearly has a lot of respect for Barnes, though, so I’m curious if there could be a series coming in the next few years.
RK: How surprised would you be if Arizona pulled off the upset?
DC: I don’t think it would be quite at the level of Mississippi State’s upset over UConn in 2017…but it would probably be close. I don’t think Arizona can stop Edwards and Nelson-Ododa and one of Bueckers or Williams will probably go off for 20+ points as well. Because of that, I don’t see Arizona having enough firepower to keep up with UConn aside from McDonald. It is March, though, so anything is possible.