After three regular season games, at the very least UConn has done nothing to indicate that its unanimous #1 ranking was undeserved.
After a brief championship banner unveiling without much pomp or circumstance, UConn opened their first game against Northeastern with a 28-0 run over the first five and a half minutes of the game, the first 22 points of which were scored before Maya Moore even took a shot. There are few ways to get create a run like that, and this was the kind of execution that's admirable against any opponent, with Northeastern only committing three turnovers during that stretch. Any fight Northeastern may have had was extinguished in those first five minutes, and UConn cruised to a school record 69 points at the half even though the team had already gone into their "work on the halfcourt offense and keep the score down" mode.
The second game -- a trip to San Antonio to play ranked Texas and promote this spring's Final Four -- had the feel of last season's NCAA tournament games. With it's size and athleticism, Texas made the game difficult for UConn at times with the help of some UConn foul trouble, but there was no way that they could match UConn's level of play over 40 minutes.
All-American center Tina Charles played only 8 minutes, starting guard Tiffany Hayes played only 7 minutes, and backup center Kaili McLaren played only 5 minutes in the first half because of fouls. Despite playing without a true post player for over seven minutes of the last ten minutes of the first half, UConn still managed to increase its lead from 16 points to 21 points at the half.
With the starters back in the second half, Texas had no chance of narrowing that lead. It may have been a perfect early season game from the UConn coaches' perspective. They got a chance to see the team overcome some adversity with a solid win, but they still had plenty of mistakes to complain about in practice.
Friday's annual game against Holy Cross began slowly offensively. Unlike Northeastern, the Holy Cross coaches and players had the benefit of playing UConn every year and that familiarity at least gives them a chance not to be overwhelmed right from the tip.
Holy Cross managed to keep UConn in the halfcourt over most of the first five minutes, and the UConn players seemed unsure of what they wanted to execute. UConn coach Geno Auriemma put on a press to speed up the game and a few forced turnovers and transition baskets resulted in Maya Moore and the rest of the team finding their groove. The bench players played almost exclusively during the last fourteen minutes of the game, and carried themselves well, overcoming their more limited scoring skills with crisp passing. The off the court highlight of the night though may have been Maya Moore candidly reacting with excitement to be on the jumbotron screen while sitting on the bench late in the game. When asked about it after the game the National Player of the Year reminded everyone that, "Yep, were still kids."
So after three games, one against an opponent ranked in the top 15 by both the AP and the coaches, and an average margin of victory of only a tick under fifty points per game, what can be said about this UConn team?
It's too early to draw many conclusions The real test for this team is on December 23rd against Stanford. The heart of UConn's out of conference schedule - Stanford, Florida State, North Carolina, Duke, and Oklahoma - doesn't begin until that game with Stanford. There may come a point where the grind of the Big East regular season mixed with those out of conference games wears the team down. But, there are a few observations that can be taken away from these three games.
UConn teams have usually stood out for their intensity over forty minutes. The players are used to being judged by their play on each possession, rather than the final score. Yet even in enormous blowouts, UConn's intensity has been the focus of opposing coaches through both the exhibition games and the first three games of the regular season.
Vanguard University coach Russ Davis -- whose team played Pac-10 powers Stanford, Cal, and Arizona State before finishing the exhibition season with UConn -- said, "I think the difference between them right now is that their intensity level is the highest intensity level we have seen so far. You see McLaren diving (after the ball) up 30, and Maya is playing like it's a Final Four game."
The Longhorns' Kathleen Nash who scored 22 points against UConn said, "Their intensity was at another level. For a team to come out and play that hard -- for that long -- and just do every little thing right makes them a great team."
Geno Auriemma certainly has something to do with the team's intensity level over the years, but Maya Moore has also been a consistent influence. Whether she becomes the clear vocal leader or not, it's Maya who sets the tone in terms of work ethic and intensity. And she's done it since the beginning of her freshman year. It's Maya that sets the standards on the court. As Maya said following the Holy Cross game, "You have to be mentally mature enough to not look at the scoreboard. You have a choice. We can develop bad habits in this game or we can break them and turn them into good habits."
Tina Charles is the center of attention
Tina Charles has always been a center of Geno Auriemma, but now -- perhaps for the first time -- she really is the center of the team's attention due both to her own effort and changes in the makeup of the team.
Charles has been consistently aggressive on both ends fo the court and the guards have also been more dedicated to feeding Charles the ball in the post. Despite excellent offensive numbers, Charles had a tendency to become an after thought in the UConn offense in previous seasons partly as a result of her effort and partly because of her teammates. Former point guard Renee Montgomery could get the ball to the posts off of dribble penetration, but her lack of size limited her ability to be a strong post entry passer. And Montgomery really was the center of the offense as well.
With Montgomery gone the focus of the offense has changed, and this team has a few more players with the ability to get Charles the ball in the post. Maya Moore and Kaili McLaren both have been tremendous at making the post entry pass off of high-low action, but during the last two seasons, UConn has lost an important half court floor spacer and post entry passer at mid-season in Mel Thomas and Caroline Doty. Those losses had an impact on Charles' ability to get the ball in good position.
This season UConn doesn't have the quick penetrations into the lane with the dump off passes to the post on the weak side that fans were used to seeing both from Renee Montgomery and Ketia Swanier. But, the ball has been getting into Charles in the post with greater efficiency.
Although this season's guards can't create the same type of penetration, there is a conscious effort by the guards to get Charles the ball in the post. Caroline Doty was called the best post entry passer on team last season by Geno Auriemma as a freshman, and that skill has been evident again in the early going. Having her back has helped Charles and freshman Kelly Faris has a similar ability to anticipate the opening and quickly make the post entry pass before the defense can rotate.
As a result of Charles' aggressiveness and a team more focused on getting her the ball, nearly 40% of UConn's possessions have gone through Charles when she's been on the floor in the first three games. She's scored over a fifth of the team's total points and grabbed over a fifth of the team's total rebounds, despite averaging only 19 minutes per game in the early going.
Point Guard Update
With Lorin Dixon out with a hamstring injury both Tiffany Hayes and Caroline Doty have been filling the point guard spot during the first three games. The combination of Hayes and Doty as a starting backcourt has been mostly effective, but individually they've had different experiences.
Although Hayes has been the one with the starting point guard label so far, it's a position that she has said she doesn't really want. "It is kind of different because when you are at point guard, you have to make that right pass at the right time to the right person. When you are on the wing, you receive the ball and you either do something with it, make something happen or pass it to the open person. It is different from a point guard’s perspective because you have to know who you are passing it to, what they can do with it, where to go after you pass it to that person. It is kind of different, but I have been working on it in practice so it has been getting better."
While her overall play has been okay, Hayes has had thirteen turnovers and eight assists in three games and her coach has said she was trying to do too much. Often times she's over-penetrated to begin possessions, attacking until the defense stops her. That's often left her too deep when the defense does shut off her penetration to smoothly start the offense and also created some of the turnovers.
In contrast, last week's Swish Appeal poll winner, Doty, has 17 assists and only 3 turnovers through three games and has been more relaxed at the point. However, Doty has not yet embraced the point guard spot publicly either.
Knocking off the rust after not being able to play for six months had been difficult enough for Caroline during the preseason without the pressures of playing point guard. "I'm just trying to stay smart and work hard," said Doty. "It is getting there. I still have a lot of stuff to work on especially sharing the point guard role with Tiffany until Lorin gets back. It is definitely a lot of work. It requires a lot of work and concentration. I'm willing to do it, and I'm going to keep getting better."
After the Holy Cross game UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey said, "I was teasing Caroline. I had to remind her that we recruited her as a point guard." When she committed to UConn, Doty had said that the coaches' belief in her ability to play point guard was one of the reasons she chose UConn, and she still has the skills if not all the athleticism that made the UConn coaches think she could play point guard when most programs were recruiting her as a shooting guard.
"I'm just trying to stay focused and do the right thing," said Doty in describing her approach to the position. "I see that Tina is working really hard down low, get her the ball. Maya is flashing to the ball amazingly so I am just trying to get the right people the ball at the right times. See the play develop as it is going on and just try to see what pass is going to be there before it happens and just kind of play from there.
With Hayes trying to do too much early on, Auriemma has shifted the team into more two guard fronts to take pressure off of her, and allowing her to dump the ball to Doty or Kelly Faris if she runs into too much defensive pressure or feels uncomortable. Of course UConn isn't alone in replacing a point guard: Auriemma recently said that North Carolina men's coach Roy Williams asked for information on UConn's two guard offensive sets because North Carolina's star point guard Ty Lawson had moved on to the NBA . It hasn't been all smooth sailing at point guard, but Geno Auriemma has been remarkably upbeat and after each game instead of worrying about plugging leaks in the backcourt.