A Nightmare in Newark?
UConn men, women head into national showcase with key injuries, little confidence
Despondent in ways we haven’t seen in years, perhaps ever, Geno Auriemma on Thursday night described his team as disorganized and disheveled following its miserable performance in a 57-44 loss at Georgia Tech.
“We’re in a bad way right now,” Auriemma said. “And that’s that.”
Without a hint of sarcasm, he added that he’s a realist, not an optimist, and he doesn’t see the Huskies’ problems getting fixed.
So America will see them on display.
This alternate universe reality is probably better fit for the privacy of big black curtains instead of national exposure but, alas, the Huskies are about to be shown from sea to shining sea, facing UCLA Saturday afternoon in the first regular season women’s game ever televised on ABC.
Both UConn basketball teams, in fact, will meet up in Newark Saturday as shells of what coaches and TV executives figured them to be at this point. The Never Forget Tribute Classic is a doubleheader that begins with the women’s game at 1 p.m. and is followed by Dan Hurley’s men facing St. Bonaventure at 4 p.m. on ESPN2.
It is an afternoon showcase of two depleted teams.
Paige Bueckers isn’t even likely to be in the building. Days removed from a tibial plateau fracture diagnosis and news that she will miss six to eight weeks, Bueckers did not travel with the Huskies for this Atlanta-Newark swing. Her backup, Nika Muhl (foot), will be in street clothes. So will the most famous freshman in America, Azzi Fudd (also foot). Maybe, just maybe, Aubrey Griffin (back) will make her season debut — but that is unlikely.
The men have been nearly equally beset by injury. Adama Sanogo (abdominal) remains sidelined. Maybe, just maybe, Tyrese Martin (wrist) will return from a two-game absence — but that is unlikely.
Wednesday’s 56-53 loss at West Virginia left the Huskies with an 8-2 record and they’re trying to tread water on the ramp to Big East play, which begins Dec. 18 against Providence. Flying high after a valuable experience at the Battle 4 Atlantis, UConn’s season took a sudden and potentially damaging turn with the loss of Sanogo, whose initial timeline for return after being hurt Nov. 30 was three to four weeks, and Martin, who is out of a cast and is day-to-day at this point.
Maybe the Huskies grind out a victory at West Virginia with them in uniform. Still, UConn played itself
into, and out of, a winnable situation, fading down the stretch with futile offense, making just 3 of 21 3-pointers and failing to capitalize on the fact that the Mountaineers made just 12 of 27 free throws. The game was a mess.
Meanwhile, injuries aren’t the only issue for the women’s team, whose performance Thursday — and in the fourth quarter of both of its losses this season — was alarming. UConn is a team regressing, with players previously hiding in Bueckers’ shadow suddenly exposed as lesser versions of themselves. That is backwards.
This was going to be one of the Huskies’ deepest teams in years, offseason conversation went. It isn’t, due to the ridiculous spate of injuries — and because healthy players who were actually going to be central to that depth appear unrecognizably lost. They have wilted under pressure in close games. They have been, as Auriemma said, disorganized and disheveled. And seemingly disinterested.
The Huskies were 1for-10 from the field in the fourth quarter and outscored 16-3 Nov. 22 against South Carolina. A threepoint deficit became a 73-57 loss.
They were 2-for-12 and outscored 18-5 against Georgia Tech. It was tied, 39-39, to start the quarter.
That’s two quarters — one with Bueckers, one without — for a combined 3-for-22 shooting and a 34-8 scoring deficit. All eight fourth-quarter points in those games were scored by Evina Westbrook, who like Christyn Williams beside her in the backcourt have been wildly inconsistent as seniors.
Both were top national recruits, Westbrook first spending two years at Tennessee. Aaliyah Edwards is struggling in every aspect of the game. She is now averaging 6.4 points and six rebounds. She was UConn’s best post player down the stretch last season, shooting 73% from the field in five NCAA Tournament
Now, UConn is worse with her on the court. She missed all five of her shots and was scoreless at Georgia Tech, four days after failing to grab a rebound against Notre Dame. Dorka Juhasz, an All-Big Ten player at Ohio State, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, another top national recruit who has improved only marginally in four seasons, haven’t been much better.
The absence of Bueckers, Fudd and Muhl is an inconvenience, a major one. But UConn’s performance Thursday was befuddling nonetheless. All that looks worse than the decisive numbers posted is the body language. UConn is carrying itself as a team that is beaten up and beaten, period. That has never been the case, even in the relative struggles of the mid-2000s.
But it is, America’s team in many ways, the one people either love or just love to hate, set for this rare ABC exposure from the Prudential Center, with part of its cruise-control national dominance already cracked. The loss to Georgia Tech was UConn’s first to an unranked team in 241 games, since Feb. 18, 2012 (St. John’s). It was rife with missed layups, airballs and inexplicable turnovers, basic and fundamental failures.
If UConn loses Saturday to UCLA it would be the program’s first back-toback losses over a span of 1,030 games since 1992-93. UConn is 75-0 following a loss since that time. This year’s team shows increasing potential to end that streak, a reality that runs counter to the preseason hype and assumptions.
It’s bizzarro world and everyone gets to take a look on Saturday, a nationallytelevised game that funnels UConn into a seven-day break before a Dec. 19 game against Louisville at Mohegan Sun. Maybe Fudd and Griffin return by then. Maybe the Huskies figure themselves out through introspection and practice. For now, they’re headed to Newark and headed in the wrong direction.