Aside from the inevitable personnel changes, there is something else that currently distinguishes this UConn team from the one which won the national championship last season.
These Huskies enter the NCAA Tournament reasonably healthy. That wasn’t the case last March.
“We’re not too bad at this point with anyone needing to be in and out of practice,” Bria Hartley said. “When that happens, it’s very hard to deal with.”
After a regular season burdened by injuries and illness that ended Morgan Tuck’s season in January and cost Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis 12 games, No. 1 UConn (34-0) begins its chase of a ninth national championship in as good a physical condition as anyone could expect.
The only apparent issues are Stefanie Dolson’s head cold and whatever pain lingers in the feet and ankles of guards Moriah Jefferson and Brianna Banks.
Geno Auriemma said Monday that Dolson, his All-American center, did not practice last week after falling ill at some point during the American Athletic Conference tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“Everyone is fine, with the exception of Stefanie, who came down with something that’s been going on around campus,” Auriemma said. “She might have even had it during the AAC tournament and it kind of knocked her out on Tuesday. Other than that, we have no issues, everyone is fine.”
Last season’s NCAA Tournament sprint was much more complicated. Dolson had issues with stress fractures and plantar fasciitis. And Kelly Faris dealt with a severe ankle injury sustained in the triple-overtime regular season finale at Notre Dame.
Those injuries required a lot of rest and therapy when the team was not playing, something that complicated whatever practice plans Auriemma and his staff had. But now the process is more routine.
“We gave them a bunch of days off [after the AAC championship game on March 10],” Auriemma said. “Spring break started. We were just trying to find out who we’d be playing; where and when.
“Stefanie hasn’t practiced since the Louisville game [AAC championship] and that kind of changed practice. But other than that, we’ve been doing pretty much what we do all the time at this time of year, trying to keep our legs under us, maintain our conditioning, work on some things we need to work on.”
Auriemma said he planned to hold practices Tuesday and Wednesday and give the team Thursday off. Then on Friday, he will start getting them focused on Sunday’s first-round game against No. 16 Prairie View at Gampel Pavilion at 8.
“It’s like a sprint [to the finish] from Sunday,” Auriemma said.
Jefferson, UConn’s ignition switch at the point, was been dealing with cranky ankle for the last month, mostly by wearing a walking boot when there’s no sneaker. Still, it has not impacted her minutes or performance since being limited to 16 minutes on Feb. 19 against Central Florida.
But just in case, Auriemma wants to make sure Banks, a junior, and Saniya Chong, the freshmen, pick up the pace before Sunday’s tip. Both have played inconsistently of late.
“They have looked better,” Auriemma said. “That’s basically what wanted, for them to be better. They have both made some progress since last Monday [the Louisville game] and I hope it carries over.
“Having said that, they’ve both practiced well for some time now. They just don’t function well in games for long large stretches. I was kidding Saniya the other day about it. I told her she had more fouls than points [five to four in the AAC tournament].
“I was guessing [at the time], but I thought I was right. And that’s not going to get it done. I think she’s getting the message.”
And to help matters along, Auriemma is doing his best to make sure things get done in practice without unduly taxing the condition of his players.
“Practice is more specific at this time of year,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “He doesn’t really try to kill us with a lot of running. There’s a good balance between working full-court, half-court or maybe just on shooting.”
Dolson agreed that things are different now.
“You just do things to make sure your game is on point as a team,” she said. “If there is a difference now, it’s in the environment, the aura that the team feels around it.
“We’re full go now.”
Dolson approaching record
The senior center has started 146 games in her career, just two shy of Renee Montgomery’s program record (148). If she stays healthy and UConn makes it to the national championship game, she will shatter Montgomery’s mark and tie Tiffany Hayes. Maya Moore and Faris for second place for the most games played in program history (154). Kalana Greene of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun holds the record with 157, the most ever in NCAA Division I women’s history.