Over the years, UConn and Villanova have become polar opposites on the point of how to balance offense, thanks to the philosophies of their coaches and the talent base of their programs.
Geno Auriemma favors options through tempo, pressure and diversity. Harry Perretta, the Wildcats veteran coach, recruits cookie-cutter three-point shooters, tries to slow down the game and hopes for the best.
“Perfect world? You want both a dominate post and three-point shooter because they will feed each other,” said Debbie Fiske, UConn’s radio analyst and a former Huskies point guard.
And this what UConn will continue to pursue Tuesday when the No. 3 Huskies (18-1, 5-1) play the Wildcats at the XL Center.
One of UConn’s major assets this season are post players who can shoot perimeter jumpers as well as post up defenders. This is called versatility. And when working at high efficiency, this theoretically makes defending its abundant perimeter game as hard as shoveling a driveway with a soup spoon.
“One through 10, they [the Huskies] are able to maintain the level their starters normally play with,” Cincinnati coach Jamelle Elliott said. “The last two or three years, Geno hasn’t had the depth or the confidence that guys could come off the bench and maintain the intensity. This year he has it.”
This depth and variety has also opened up a new world for UConn’s jump shooters, Faris, Brianna Banks, Caroline Doty, Bria Hartley and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who is second in the nation in three-point accuracy.
Think about it: Devise a defense to stop this attack.
“What has made a player like Kaleena so effective this year is that rarely is she the only three-point shooter on the floor. Very rarely will she need to take many contested shots,” Auriemma said. “Bria [Hartley] and Kelly [Faris] will make their share. Brianna Banks has made more. Breanna Stewart [makes some threes] when she is in the game.
“Look at Maggie Lucas [Penn State], Anna Martin [DePaul], Shoni Schimmel [Louisville] or the Villanova kids. If you don’t have enough around you, you are not going to get enough attempts, certainly not against the best teams.”
UConn is so resourceful that it has thrived even though Hartley is in the midst of a difficult shooting season. After injuring her left ankle in the summer playing for USA Basketball, she has literally been fighting this season to regain her balance.
“Horrible,” said Hartley when asked to describe her shooting this season. “And a lot of it is mental, coming out there and not having a lot of confidence in myself to do the things that translate into good shooting.”
Hartley’s left ankle is heavily braced and taped every day in order to protect and stabilize it.
“I wasn’t blessed with good ankles I guess,” Hartley said. “I just have to keep playing. I can’t be worried or frustrated every time I manage to roll my ankle again. It happens. You are hurt sometimes. You need to just play through it.
“The tape doesn’t always prevent injury. I was taped when I had my first injury [this summer]. Sweat causes the tape to loosen up and it’s not as tight. This [brace] is what they came up with and it’s what I have to put on my ankle. I just need to strengthen it and work more on my balance.”
Fiske, the point guard on UConn’s 1991 Final Four team, can imagine the new dimension UConn’s offense would reach if Hartley could warm up.
“Bria’s struggling right now,” Fiske said. “She hasn’t been very consistent. And that could eventually cause problems for Kaleena [defensively]. But Kaleena has mastered other skills, like taking the ball to the basket, which makes it tougher to guard her straight up on the three.”
Auriemma, the coach of the Olympic gold medal team, knows a good thing when he diagrams it. And he’s going to ride this strength until the end.
“Because we play with three of four perimeter players most of the time there isn’t the same pressure on our guards as there might be on another team’s,” Auriemma said. “We’ve been able to win with the best point in the country and we’ve been able to win with something less.”
And win is what many informed observers believe UConn is capable of doing this season.
“My prediction before the season was that UConn was going to make a run at the title,” said Brian Agler, the coach/GM of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. “They are a year older, had a great recruiting class and they are hungry. Everyone talks about UConn’s ability to run and score, but they are such good defenders, as well.
“And as someone who has coached many UConn players [Sue Bird, Svetlana Abrosimova and Swin Cash], I can tell you that UConn players are almost always ready to play in the WNBA after the graduate, They just seem to get better as they get older.”