Now we've seen the University of Connecticut take on a team ranked second in the country in Baylor, a team everyone agrees is a serious national championship contender because of the presence of 6'8" center Brittney Griner.
And if Baylor is a serious national championship contender this season as one would expect of a team with a great player and nearly everyone returning from last season's Final Four team then the outcome of last night's game is exactly what should be expected from UConn this season: a game whose outcome was basically decided by a coin flip.
It was an outcome that was fairly representative of the strength of the two teams with neither team playing particularly well or particularly poorly with each team struggling in different areas.
This is the place UConn finds itself in this season.
That may actually surprise some people.
After all they lost the National Player of the Year from last season in Tina Charles. A player that not only went on to be the WNBA Rookie of the Year, but also set the WNBA single-season rebound record in her first season and established herself as one of the best centers in the world.
Then they lost their third leading scorer in Kalana Greene. They lost their starting point guard for the second year in a row after Caroline Doty needed surgery on her ACL again this summer. And they lost their experienced reserve post player in Kaili McLaren and Meghan Gardler from last season's team. Over half the minutes played and over half the points scored were by players no longer on the team this season.
So after listing all of the losses, the question might be why should UConn still be good enough as a team to beat Baylor even if it was at home?
This is obviously different than a year ago when many fans and experts alike predicted a drop-off following the loss of Renee Montgomery. At the time I tried to explain why any offensive dropoff would be small and likely offset by improvement in the defense. That turned out to be true with a small offensive offensive drop off of three points per game offset by the defense being better than anyone could realistically predict. That change meant UConn was better last year than they were with Montgomery, at least statistically.
Record Breaking Defense
UConn did not just set the NCAA DI records for points allowed per game and field goal percentage allowed per game, they shattered them last season. UConn allowed only 46.2 points per game last season breaking the record of 49 points per game set by LSU in 2007. The gap is even greater than that when you consider that UConn played faster than LSU's record-holding team which gave their opponents four more offensive possessions per game on average. Still even without a pace adjustment, the difference between UConn and LSU is the same size as the difference between LSU and eighteenth place.
The same is true of the new record for field goal percentage defense. UConn broke their own record set by the 1995 undefeated UConn team that featured perhaps the best shot blocking post tandem in NCAA history in Rebecca Lobo and Kara Wolters who both blocked 370 or more shots in their college careers. Last season's UConn team lowered the NCAA record for field goal percentage defense from 31.5% to 30.0%. That 1.5% difference is the size of the gap between the old record and what is now 10th place in NCAA history.
The statistics are so overwhelming that it's difficult to make a stronger argument for any other team as the best defensive team in NCAA history.
On the strength of that amazing defense and a very good offense, UConn won games by an average 34.9 points per game. That was the second largest average margin of victory in NCAA history and just a half point per game behind UConn's 2002 team. It's fair to say that they were about ten points better than the clear second best team in the country last season in Stanford. And over fifteen points better than the average Final Four team.
What About This Season?
I'm speaking in fairly accurate, but rough estimates here to cover up for differences in strength of schedule and pace of play that can have fairly large effects on average margin of victory. But the point is this: UConn is in a position where their margin of victory could be cut in half from last season and they still would be a likely Elite Eight team in this spring's NCAA tournament. That's simply how much better they were than other teams last season, but with everything UConn lost from that team how good can they realistically be?
I can use the same statistics developed by Dean Oliver that I used last season to illustrate why there wouldn't be much of a drop off to try and get a handle on how just how good UConn is likely to be over the course of this season. Now there are a ton more variables to consider this season than simply replacing Renee Montgomery so I going to throw out some general scenarios.
There were only two losses from last year's team that were really playing above a level that is difficult to replace: Tina Charles and Kalana Greene. In other words, Charles and Greene are the only players that Geno Auriemma will have trouble replacing with in terms of statistical productivity. Greene was the third leading scorer and a very efficient scorer if not a prolific one, and that efficiency may not be able to be matched by players on this year's team. And of course no one can match the efficient scoring of Tina Charles. While the other players - especially Caroline Doty - played important roles, their statistical impact on the unit was not quite as significant.
Just to simply things further let's assume that UConn can effectively replace Kalana Greene's contributions, but only gets replacement level production in the place of Tina Charles's minutes at center. The reality will likely be somewhere in between, but this will produce a similar result.
Replacement level production basically means the type of play UConn backup centers Kaili McLaren and Heather Buck provided last season. Both averaged 1 point scored per possession and just about any post playing for UConn in the last fifteen years can be expected to be at least that efficient making it a good replacement level. Statistically, the drop off on offense between Charles and players like Buck or McLaren is the difference between the 1.25 points per possession that Tina Charles scored and getting 1.00 points scored per possession. To put that in perspective, it would likely be about four to five points per game.
And that may be about where the offensive drop off ultimately ends up given that it's likely that UConn gets a bit more than replacement level production in the post, while Moore likely loses some scoring efficiency with greater defensive attention and Kalana Greene's efficiency goes essentially unreplaced.
So offensively, UConn still will likely average over seventy-five points per game, but less than eighty points per game.
The drop is likely to be larger on the other end of the floor.
Last season, UConn had the ability to play great defense without fouling largely due to the ability of Tina Charles to play great defense without committing fouls. She played her entire senior season without ever getting in serious foul trouble. That contributed greatly to UConn's overall defense because the free throw line is a talent equalizer. Just about any team is capable of some scoring efficiently from the free throw line, but UConn forced teams to actually make shots.
This season, UConn's young posts are going to foul more, a lot more. That's goes for young post players - and really post players in general - and UConn's young post players certainly showed that against Baylor with both Stefanie Dolson and Samarie Walker fouling out of the game in the middle of the second half. The UConn defense this season will probably give up at least three to four more points per game on average just at the free throw lane than they did last season.
Overall, defensively I would expect them to give up seven to eight more points per game than they did a year ago. With UConn giving up more offensive rebounds and more points in the paint in addition to the extra free throws. Which puts them back to allowing somewhere in the low 50's per game and back into the pack of strong defensive teams. They may be a bit better than that, but they aren't likely to be much worse. The Baylor game illustrated that UConn's returning perimeter defenders cans still cause teams great difficulty, especially when Maya Moore, Kelly Faris, Tiffany Hayes, and Lorin Dixon are all on the court together.
Offensively, if UConn just gets replacement level production in place of Tina Charles - which basically means the type of play UConn backup posts Kaili McLaren and Heather Buck provided last season - the offense will drop off about four points per game. It's the difference between getting 1.00 point scored per possession and the 1.25 points per possession that Tina Charles scored. And that may be about where the offensive drop off ultimately ends up given that UConn likely gets a bit better than replacement level production in the post, but Maya likely loses some scoring efficiency with greater defensive attention and Kalana Greene's efficiency may not be entirely matched. At worst, it's seven to eight point drop to match the one on defense, but a drop off of around four points on offense is more likely.
What the statistics tell us overall
So a four to five point drop on offense and a seven to eight point drop on defense lowers UConn's point differential from 35 points per game to somewhere in the low twenties. Basically the same size drop UConn experienced after the graduation of Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, and Tamika Williams in 2002. It's a drop that puts them in a similar position to other national championship contenders this season like Baylor and dozens of other teams over the the last decade.
UConn sits in an interesting position where the opportunity to clearly be the best team in the country is still barely within reach, but they could also easily find themselves in a position where simply making the FInal Four again is a significant accomplish as the margin for error has shrunk that much.
Judging by Geno's Auriemma's mood over the last week or two, the former seems more likely for the moment as he's been entirely too cheerful.