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American Athletic Preview: UConn seniors seek NCAAW Championship, with hopes of high WNBA Draft stock

For Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, it is doubtful that an undefeated American Athletic Conference title would satisfy them this season because much bigger things are on the line.

Notre Dame v Connecticut
Napheesa Collier enters the 2018-19 season with hopes that the weapons she acquired during her time with Team USA will help the UConn Huskies to win it all.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

No matter what the women of the UConn Huskies’ basketball team tell themselves, they will be competing this season in the shadow of giants, with undefeated greatness — culminating in the NCAA Tournament title and high WNBA Draft stock — being the expected measures of success.

Such is the situation UConn players find themselves in, thanks to former Huskies’ star Breanna Stewart winning the 2018 WNBA Championship, WNBA MVP and Finals MVP awards three years into her professional career, plus a FIBA World Cup Championship and FIBA MVP award to boot. Such is the case when UConn legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are still playing, and still dominating, the game. And it’s how the story goes when four alums made it to the 2018 WNBA Playoffs, including rookie Azura Stevens (with the Dallas Wings), with two former Huskies winning it all: the Seattle Storm’s Stewart and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

But, you know. No pressure or anything.

The question, however, will be whether any team in the American Athletic Conference can stop the storied UConn Huskies.

Teams in the American Athletic Conference

Here are the teams in the American Athletic Conference, followed by their conference and overall records, according to the 2017-18 standings:

  • UConn Huskies— 16-0 (36-1)
  • South Florida Bulls — 13-3 (26-8)
  • UCF Knights — 12-4 (22-11)
  • Cincinnati Bearcats — 10-6 (19-13)
  • Houston Cougars — 9-7 (20-12)
  • Wichita State Shockers — 9-7 (14-17)
  • East Carolina Pirates — 7-9 (16-15)
  • Tulane Green Wave — 5-11 (14-17)
  • Memphis Tigers — 5-11 (10-20)
  • SMU Mustangs — 4-12 (10-20)
  • Temple Owls — 3-13 (12-19)
  • Tulsa Golden Hurricane — 3-13 (10-21)

Biggest storylines heading into the season

The results of the American Athletic Conference Preseason Polls are in, and it’s all UConn Huskies, all the time. For starters, the Huskies were predicted to win the conference, by unanimous voting. With coaching legend Geno Auriemma drawing up the plays, and the Huskies piling on undefeated seasons in recent history (including last season when UConn went 16-0), it would have been inept for voters to pick any other team.

Senior forward Katie Lou Samuelson was named Preseason Player of the Year for the first time in her college career. Samuelson was an easy pick for the honor, given her collection of First Team All-American and American Athletic Conference Player of the Year awards. Additionally, she was a big part of the Huskies’ undefeated 2017-18 campaign, leading all UConn scorers with 17.4 points per game and leading the conference in three-point shooting, with a dangerous 47.5 percent from deep.

Napheesa Collier joins Samuelson in UConn’s quest not only to dominate the American Athletic Conference again, but to win the NCAAW Championship with such aplomb that the two seniors rise to the top of WNBA Draft conversations. And Collier has a real chance to accomplish both goals thanks to new weapons she brings into her senior campaign, courtesy of Team USA Head Coach Dawn Staley. Collier practiced with the USA Basketball Women’s National Team and competed in exhibitions in Team USA’s run-up to, and eventual win of, the 2018 FIBA World Cup in Tenerife, Spain.

Of her time with the national team, Staley said, “Napheesa is great. She’s pretty much the same player but she’s a lot more efficient. She understands a lot more. She brings people up to her level as far as how hard she plays, her unselfishness and her ability to be relentless.” And all knowledge gained, Collier has chosen to weaponize for the Huskies. “I’m taking this back to my [UConn] team,” Collier said. “More physicality, the pace of [game], how people see the floor differently.”

So, which teams in the conference have a chance to present some challenges for the Huskies?

Look no further than the Preseason All-Conference First- and Second-Team selections. Removing UConn players from the first team, including Samuelson, Collier and Crystal Dangerfield, that leaves Jasmyne Harris of the Houston Cougars and Kitija Laksa of the South Florida Bulls. From the second team, there is Angela Harris (Houston), Laura Ferreira (South Florida), Alicia Froling of the SMU Mustangs, and Alliya Butts and Mia Davis of the Temple Owls.

South Florida may have had a respectable 13-3 conference record last season, but the three losses were handed to them by none other than the UConn Huskies, who dominated the Bulls every time out, including a 49-100 blowout on Jan. 6, 2018. Houston finished last season with a middling record, but suffered embarrassing losses to the top teams in the conference. The Cougars’ one meeting with UConn in 2017-18, for example, resulted in an embarrassing 60-point mauling by the Huskies. Against South Florida, the Cougars were defeated, 81-65. The SMU Mustangs, meanwhile, were obliterated by UConn last season, 36-80, and also lost their one contest against South Florida, while the Temple Owls were defeated by UConn in two meetings last season and also lost their two contests against the South Florida Bulls.

Thus, although other teams in the conference have standout players, none have the weapons needed to contend with UConn, let alone defeat them.

Game information

Season openers

UConn Huskies vs. Ohio State Buckeyes

When: Sunday, Nov. 11, at 12 p.m. ET

Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT

How to watch: CBS Sports Network | Radio: 97.9 ESPN

South Florida Bulls at Ohio State Buckeyes

When: Tuesday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Value City Arena, Columbus, OH

How to watch: BTN Plus

Notable contests

UConn Huskies vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

When: Sunday, Dec. 2, at 4 p.m. ET

Where: Purcell Pavilion, South Bend, ID

How to watch: ESPN | Radio: 97.9 ESPN

Why to watch: The Fighting Irish will look to remind everybody why they are the reigning champions and cast doubt in the Huskies’ ability to get past them in any contest this season. Notre Dame bounced UConn from the 2018 Final Four with a 91-89 win. But the Huskies beat the Fighting Irish, 80-71, back on Dec. 3, 2017. That win, plus losing in the Final Four by just two points, should give the Huskies confidence in their ability to get past the Fighting Irish.

South Florida Bulls at UConn Huskies

When: Sunday, Jan. 13, at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT

How to watch: ESPN | Radio: 97.9 ESPN

Why to watch: For UConn fans, this matchup will be about seeing just how badly the Huskies can devour the Bulls. Fans of South Florida, meanwhile, will be watching to see if the Bulls stave off a blowout loss and perhaps inject some competition into the conference.

Click here to visit the American Athletic Conference website.