by Rob Joyce
Last week we sifted through the 2017-18 schedule for the UConn men’s basketball team. Now it’s time to run through the women’s schedule. For the first time since Breanna Stewart was an incoming freshman Geno Auriemma’s squad isn’t coming off a national championship, and there isn’t a triple-digit win streak adding a two-ton block of pressure.
That doesn’t mean expectations aren’t high – the Huskies return four All-Americans, have a pair of Power Five transfers eligible, bring in the No. 1 recruit in the country and are preseason No. 1 in the polls. And UConn will be tested – they open the season with three straight games against ranked teams, and they play 11 programs that are ranked in the preseason, including seven of the top-10.
Of those 11, which are the five likeliest to give the Huskies the biggest challenge?
5) Maryland (Nov. 19, XL Center):
There are teams ranked higher than the No. 13 Terrapins, but don’t take that to mean Brenda Frese’s team can’t keep up. A lot of teams come into games against UConn scared – that won’t happen with Maryland. Last year in College Park a 19-point Huskies lead shrunk to five in the second half before UConn won 87-81. The year before at Madison Square Garden it was an 83-73 result, UConn’s toughest test of that year.
Mercifully forward Brionna Jones (43 points, 20 rebounds vs. UConn the last two years) graduated, and freshman stud Destiny Slocum (23 points, seven assists last December) transferred. Sophomore Kaila Charles now leads the charge, and though the Terps won’t be as talented, Frese will certainly have them ready.
4) Notre Dame (Dec. 3, XL Center):
The best rivalry in the sport renews itself in Hartford, but the Irish are the walking wounded. Senior point guard Mychal Johnson tore her ACL last week, making her the second starter to be lost for the year with an ACL injury (All-American Brianna Jones will miss the year after she got hurt in the NCAA Tournament).
The idea that the Irish is UConn’s Achilles heel is no more – the Huskies have won six straight in the series after dropping seven of eight. Notre Dame is still the favorite to win a fifth straight ACC title, and they still have firepower in Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey, who can’t combine to shoot 5-of-22 this year against UConn.
3) UCLA (Nov. 21, Los Angeles):
In a vacuum a trip to Pauley Pavilion would be difficult enough by itself. Consider, though, that UConn will face Stanford, Cal and Maryland, fly across the country and tip off in Westwood about 48 hours after playing the Terps, and it adds a degree of difficulty. The Bruins hung around with the Huskies in the Sweet 16 in March after falling behind by 20 early on, ultimately losing 86-71. In that game Jordin Canada scored 20 points, and if she can find a teammate to replicate the now-departed Kari Korver’s five three-pointers, the Bruins can pull off the upset against the potentially exhausted Huskies.
2) Stanford (Nov. 12, Columbus, OH):
The Cardinal were the great streak breakers, twice ending historic Husky win streaks. They won’t be able to do that this time around, but the season-opener in Columbus can make a different sort of history. A Stanford win would hand UConn it’s first season-opening loss since 1995, and give the Huskies back-to-back losses for the first time since 1993… that’s 886 straight games without two straight losses.
You never know how a team will perform in a season-opener, especially on a neutral court. The Cardinal lost two of their best players from their Final Four run a year ago in Erica McCall and Karlie Samuelson (Katie Lou’s sister), but Brittany McPhee took major strides forward in her junior season, and Alanna Smith should see an increase in minutes as well.
1) South Carolina (Feb. 1, Columbia):
The defending national champs, the Gamecocks are ranked second in the preseason but they have to replace much of their depth. Two-time First Team All-American center A’ja Wilson is a senior who will likely improve on her 17.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, but behind her there are question marks.
Allisha Gray (13.2 points), Alaina Coates (12.9 points, 19.7 rebounds) and Kaela Davis (12.7 points, 59 threes) are all gone, meaning senior Bianca Cuevas-Moore and sophomore Tyasha Harris will have to replace much of that production. If they can shoot any better than 33 percent from three-point range and get a big game from Wilson, UConn could leave Colonial Life Arena with a loss.