The University of Connecticut will begin the defense of their two consecutive undefeated national championships today against Holy Cross with a roster of only ten players this season. Only five of those ten were on last season's team. Only three of those five were in the rotation for last spring's Final Four. And only two of those three started even a single game for UConn last season, but luckily for UConn one of those two players is one of the best players in college basketball history, Maya Moore.
If it is possible for a player that will likely finish her college career as the most decorated player in women's college basketball history to be under appreciated, Maya Moore may indeed be that. Lots of time was spent by fans and media alike formulating arguments about why first Renee Montgomery and then Tina Charles was the most important UConn player, but Moore has been the real engine at the heart of the UConn machine over the last three seasons. Moore's competitive drive and consistency of work ethic is the reason a team can win 78 games without the outcome of a single game ever being in serious doubt in the final minutes. Moore's individual drive to chase perfection carried the team along with her. This season is a different kind of challenge with UConn likely to remain near the top of the food chain, but not necessarily as the apex predator.
UConn is still very talented with every member of what looks like the seven player rotation a former McDonald's All-American. They can still blitz teams with the speed and precision of the offense attacking in transition. They can still harass teams with their experienced perimeter defenders. They can still break down defenses with their passing and cutting. Maya Moore individually consistently impacts every area of the game in a way that no one else in college basketball does, and she can probably get this team to the Elite Eight by herself. Going farther will take good health and her teammates coming through for her.
There will be more on Moore and what to expect from UConn this season on Tuesday before the game with Baylor, but here's a look at what to expect from the other nine players on the roster.
Until an exam this summer discovered that starting point guard Caroline Doty would require ACL surgery for a third time it looked like UConn would enter this season with what would likely be the deepest and most talented guard group in the country, something that could be a clear strength in addition to Maya Moore. Doty struggled at times, but by the end of the season had established herself in the point guard position that she was originally recruited to play. With Doty out the guard depth is gone and all of the guards need to stay healthy and have solid seasons.
Senior Lorin Dixon
The senior point guard has played about fifteen minutes per game in all three of her previous seasons, but she found herself on the bench when it mattered the most in the Final Four, only playing thee minutes and none in the championship game. With a couple of incoming freshmen guards it looked initially like her fall out of the rotation could eventually become more permanent if she didn't have a stronger senior season. Caroline Doty's injury changed that quickly, and now the team will almost certainly need those fifteen minutes per game from Dixon at a minimum.
Dixon may be the best athlete every time she is on the court in terms of running and jumping. She can fly down the court and explode off the floor. However all of that athleticism is wrapped in a small package, and without a reliable jump shot the 5'4" Dixon is greatly limited on offense. She struggles to score in the half court and is very turnover prone as well. That may not be as much of a problem in an open court conference like the ACC or in a different offensive system, but in a half court league like the Big East and an offensive system predicated on all five players being able to score it has been a significant issue. Her best half court offensive scoring has actually come when she's been playing Kalana Greene's former role in the offense on the wing where she could capitalize on her athleticism and her shooting limitations are minimized, rather than point guard.
Dixon has steadily improved several of her most significant weaknesses, but she started as perhaps the least effective offensive player to play significant minutes in UConn history so it has been a long climb up the hill. Her individual offensive efficiency climbed from producing 79 points per 100 offensive possessions on a team that averaged 115 points scored per 100 possessions to 86 points as a sophomore by slightly reducing turnovers. As a junior she improved to 96 points points per 100 possessions by finishing better at the rim and starting to make some jump shots. As a senior she needs to further reduce her turnovers to get her offensive efficiency up to an acceptable level as she still commits a turnover on one third of her offensive possessions.
Defensively Dixon began her career one of the lowest steal rates ever posted by a super athletic guard outside of Derrick Rose, the super athletic point guard of the Chicago Bulls. As a freshmen she wasn't aggressive enough to consistently make defensive plays with her athleticism. Last season her steal rate jumped to 1.7 steals per 40 minutes played after being around only 1 steal per 40 minutes played her first two seasons. 1.7 steals per 40 minutes is still not great, seven of her ten teammates averaged about 1.7 or better, but it was indicative of more aggressive defensive play from Dixon something that should continue.
Dixon will play significantly less minutes and score fewer points than the next three guards discussed, however Dixon merits the most discussion because she may be the key to the backcourt. The teams needs her to continue to improve as a senior, making more plays on defense and taking better care of the ball on offense. When she was a freshmen injuries forced Dixon into the rotation as the team was left with only three guards halfway through the season. Foul trouble for Ketia Swaner forced Dixon onto the court in the Final Four against Stanford, and it was a situation she was not ready for. Now as senior she's been forced once again by injuries into a key role, this time she should be able to be productive enough in a limited role supporting the following three guards that will play the majority of the minutes.
Junior Tiffany Hayes
A year ago Tiffany Hayes was the third UConn player along with Tina Charles and Maya Moore to be included on all of the pre-season All-American watch lists. That was a year early as Kalana Greene was more well positioned to be that player having already averaged twelve points per game as a sophomore prior to her ACL injury, and Hayes faced the transition from being largely ignored by defenses to being someone defenses accounted for. Her offensive load increased by about 25% last season, but the overall effect of greater defensive attention and increased ball handling duties following Renee Montgomery's graduation made that increase feel even greater.
This season Hayes will be needed too score. The athletic lefty guard has the ability to finish around the basket and on days when her unusual shooting mechanics are lined up she can rainbow in threes from deeper than any defense is willing to guard her. Hayes has to find ways to score consistently. At the very end of the season the team started occasionally running Hayes into the post where she could finish over her defender. Don't be surprised to see more of that this season as Hayes will likely be at least as effective scoring on the block as any of UConn's young post players.
Hayes has as much potential as any guard in the country. She's played her role extremely the last two seasons and taken advantage of the situation. Now she needs to take advantage of this situation, and average around 14 points per game this season. That may not seem like much, but it's a fairly high number for a UConn player. This season UConn needs Hayes to live up to the preseason expectations, and after going through a transition season last season she may be ready to do just that. Hayes should be able to average around 13 points per game this season.
Sophomore Kelly Faris
Kelly Faris came to UConn as a freshmen prepared to play. She immediately became the best perimeter defender on what would become statistically the greatest defense in NCAA history. The combination of her ability to play strong position defense even against smaller and quicker players, while still being able to make plays on the ball and defensive rebound made her special as a defender. Auriemma has said she was UConn's third best player in the Final Four, despite not scoring a point in fifty two minutes played over the two games.
Offensively Faris has never been a shooter or a scorer. And she struggled to score for the most part as a freshmen outside of a hot three point shooting streak during the NCAA tournament, but struggling for Faris meant about 101 points produced per 100 possessions. A similar number to starting point guard Caroline Doty who also struggled with her shot last season, and well ahead of even Dixon's best season. Faris isn't going to turn into a scorer, but shooting a little better, finishing around the basket a little better, and taking a little better care of the ball will make her a solid offensive player.
And that's especially true because she does everything outside of scoring well on offense. She knows where to be on offense and where everyone else is on offense, often knowing where she will the pass the ball before she even receives it herself. And she does know how to get herself to the free throw line, which she needs to do more of this season.
Faris averaged nineteen minutes and four points per game as a freshmen as the team's first and sometimes only player off of the bench. This season Faris will start and likely average around thirty minutes per game because of her ability to do nearly everything well, while bringing a consistently high level of effort and intensity. And her scoring should be a bit better so she may average around seven points per game with increased minutes and increased scoring efficiency.
Freshman Bria Hartley
At around 5'9" the slender long limbed point guard has good size as well as athleticism, particularly in terms of coordination. Few players enter college with he quality of individual skills that Bria Hartley has from training with Jerry Powell from an early age. Her ability to both handle the ball and create shots is very well developed. She has the ability to pull up off the dribble for shots all the way out to three point range, and she's going to be counted on to be one of the leading scorers on the team as a freshmen. If there's any offensive flaw it is that she has had tremendous individual training, but she has yet to really play in a highly structured team setting outside of a few weeks this summer as the point guard of the USA U-18 team coached by Jennifer Rizzotti the University of Hartford had coach and the first of UConn's All-American point guards. Without that experience Hartley is much more comfortable with the ball in her hands than moving without it, but one of the nuances of the UConn point guard factory is that the point guards actually spend considerable time playing off the ball. Along with adapting to the demands of playing point guard at the highest level of college basketball, the development of Hartley's play off of the ball will be something to monitor.
Hartley finds herself in similar situation to Renee Montgomery in joining a team that needs both a point guard and scorer, and being a player that can do both. Bria is more advanced than Montgomery was at the same age. She certainly goes left better than Montgomery who went left about twice a season, and perhaps not unrelated to going left Bria sees the whole floor better as well. As with Montgomery and most talented point guards the thing to watch will be the decision making as Hartley has the difficult task of balancing the team's need for her to score versus run the offense. Montgomery averaged 9 points in 28 minutes per game as a freshmen. Expect about the same number of minutes and a scoring average in the low double digits for Hartley.
Freshmen Lauren Engeln
The 5'11" freshmen guard will likely need some time to develop, but she will get playing time with only ten players on the roster. Engeln handles the ball well enough to play all three perimeter positions, and that versatility is valued at UConn and will be needed as even a minor injury to one of the other guards could put her in the main rotation. Engeln will likely need to develop more of an identity to gain further playing though. She's can do a lot of things, but to this point it does not appear that she does anything particularly well so there is no clear role for her to play. A common problem players face as they step up a level. Some people have wanted to compare her to Kelly Faris who is another player who has no clear position, but Faris's combination of athleticism, defense, and passing ability allowed her to immediately and consistently
The loss of Tina Charles is a void that cannot be filled. There may not be a single aspect of the game any of these four post players do as well as Tina Charles did last season. Still the team needs to find a way to get about forty to fifty minutes of solid play from some combination of these four players.
RS Sophomore Heather Buck
Heather Buck saw very limited minutes behind Tina Charles and two senior backup post players in Kaili McLaren and Meghan Gardler last season. And when she did get on the court she typically played out of position to accommodate Kaili McLaren. She struggled on offense which should not have been unexpected. She's very much an offensive role player that will be limited to taking open shots.
With everyone watching her offense with impending graduation of Tina Charles, her decent defensive play went largely unrecognized. She's both big enough at 6'3" and athletic enough to defend in any situation. Her defensive rebounding, steal, and block rates were all strong as a freshman. Outside of Moore she probably will be the best post defender on the team, and that's going to be be needed at times this season and other times went it won't be. She could play fifteen minutes in some games and not at all in others depending on the matchup, and will probably average between ten and fifteen minutes per game.
Freshman Stefanie Dolson
The 6'5" Dolson is the other true center on the team along with Heather Buck, and the likely starter. She gives the team a big body in the starting lineup and a good all around skilled offensive player. She's not really a scorer, but she scores well enough to make the defense account for her, and because she's an excellent passer offense can run through her even if she isn't a huge scoring threat. Like most young big centers Dolson will likely be a much better offensive rebounder than defensive rebounder, and defense overall will likely be a struggle as the transition from just standing in the middle of the lane in high school to college is enormous.
One of the keys will be how much she can improve defensively over the course of the season. She doesn't have to be great, but she has to be someone that will fight for position, while still being able to stay out of foul trouble. The team needs close to twenty minutes per game from her, and hopefully by the end of the season she can play a few minutes more than that. Dolson isn't likely to develop into an All-American, but could be a solid four year starter with consistent play.
Freshman Samarie Walker
Multiple recruiting services once ranked Walker as the top recruit in her class. Partly because of injuries she never really became the wing player that those recruiting services were projecting, but she brings a lot to the table as a 6'1" post player. She's athletic and physically strong with great hands that give her the ability to catch tough passes, rebound, and finish in traffic.
Walker is post player most capable of approximating a version of Tina Charles, albeit a significantly shorter version. And the approximation is of the freshmen Charles who got her points almost exclusively off of offensive rebounds, transition, and cuts to the basket, rather than the senior national player of the year who was a polished post scorer and consistent jump shooter. And Walker isn't likely to have as good a freshmen year either as Charles who was far better as a young player than she is typically given credit for in part because of the way Auriemma's comments shape public perception. And Walker's history of relatively inconsistent play suggest she may end up receiving similar treatment.
Walker may be the only one of the four post players that will be able to score consistently in the lane against strong athletic defenders. She moves like a natural post player, and against most teams her size won't be a significant issue and she can be used as the backup center in addition to backing up Maya Moore. The real challenge will be whether she will use her strength and consistently physically battle the bigger talented centers for position that she gives up significant size to. Whether she has the mentality to consistently compete for position against bigger players is yet to be determined. Look for Walker to play about 20 minutes per game and score around ten points per game to go along with solid rebounding.
Freshman Michala Johnson
This slender 6'3" F/C has not played much basketball in the last two years as Johnson missed most of the AAU season before her junior year of high school rehabbing a partially torn ACL. She would then completely tear the ACL in the fall before her high school basketball season. After rehabbing following surgery she would tear the ACL in her other knee halfway through her senior high school basketball season. She wasn't cleared for full participation until practice began and she had to miss some practice time since then to deal with swelling in her most recently surgically repaired knee.
Because she has played so little basketball over the last two years what Johnson can provide is a uncertain. With her limited strength she's not likely to be scoring in the post much early on even if she has some solid foot work. What she should be able to do is run the floor in transition for layups, offensive rebound for layups, cut to the basket for layups. A similar prescription to that of Walker for a differently built player, but Johnson's minutes will be limited for the foreseeable future as her recovery from the ACL injuries has been slow.