2019-20 American Athletic Conference preview: After UConn, the league is wide open

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ALBANY, NY – MARCH 31: Connecticut Huskies Guard Christyn Williams (13) looks to make a move with Louisville Cardinals Guard Asia Durr (25) defending during the second half of the game between the Connecticut Huskies and the Louisville Cardinals on March 31, 2019, at the Times Union Center in Albany NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Connecticut Huskies
Predicted finish: First

Key returners (last season’s stats):

G Crystal Dangerfield, 5’5, Sr.: 13.5 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.3 RPG, 92% FT
F Meghan Walker, 6’1, Jr.: 12.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 46% FG
G Christyn Williams, 5’11, So.: 11.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 50% FG
F Olivia Nelson-Ododa, 6’5, So.: 4.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 52% FG

Biggest losses:

F Napheesa Collier, 6’2: 20.8 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 61% FG
G Katie Lou Samuelson, 6’3: 18.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.9 APG, 38% 3PT

Newcomers:

F Evelyn Adebayo, 6’2, RS-Sr.
G Evina Westbrook, 6’0, Jr. (waiver pending)
G Anna Makurat, 6’1, Fr.
G Aubrey Griffin, 6’1, Fr.

Head coach: Geno Auriemma, 35th season

In terms of credentials and accomplishments, there’s not much more to say about Geno Auriemma. With 11 championships, well over 1,000 career wins, a Hall of Fame induction, an indelible impact on women’s college basketball, and so much more, he is arguably the greatest basketball coach of all-time. Not the best women’s basketball coach. Not the best college coach. The best coach (I said arguably!). This summer, however, he had to do something he hasn’t had to do in quite a while: answer questions about his incoming team. When the Huskies lost in the Final Four last year, many wondered what exactly this roster would look like. Not only were there not many impact players returning, there weren’t many players returning at all. Naturally, with opening night looming, Auriemma seems to have it all figured out.

Key non-conference games:

All of them, as this is UConn in the AAC and the Huskies will only schedule quality teams. Here are a few of the best:

Dec. 8 vs. Notre Dame
Dec. 22 vs. Oklahoma
Jan. 9 vs. Baylor
Jan. 23 vs. Tennessee
Feb. 3 vs. Oregon
Feb. 10 at South Carolina

Outlook:

In seven years, the Huskies have never lost an AAC game. Not in the regular season. Not in the conference tournament. And few of those games have been close. It’s an indictment on the conference as a whole and its failure to elevate its other members with UConn in the league, but it is just as much a testament to the Huskies’ remarkable consistency.

It’s not going to change this year. UConn will leave the AAC and return to the Big East with an undefeated all-time conference record. The difference between the Huskies and everyone else is too vast.

It gets more interesting when examining UConn on a national level. The Huskies have been to the Final Four 12 years in a row and are one of the handful of teams with a good shot at getting to New Orleans this year. Crystal Dangerfield, Megan Walker, and Christyn Williams are the sure things. Dangerfield might be the best point guard in the nation and Walker is coming off a breakout season. Williams was phenomenal in the NCAA Tournament last year. But in order for UConn to go from a top-10 team to a potential national champion, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Evelyn Adebayo (a grad transfer from Murray State) are going to have to play serious roles. Even last year, UConn’s lack of an imposing post presence was a concern. That’s why Adebayo came in. The presence that earned her 18.2 points and 11.4 points per game in the OVC is going to have to carry over to Storrs, not necessarily in those numbers, but in the ability to challenge and accept challenges from some of the best posts in the game.

Best-Case Scenario:

UConn rolls through conference play and the AAC Tournament, ending its AAC tenure undefeated and going back to the Big East with one of the stranger accomplishments ever in college basketball.

Overall, the Huskies have put together an insane non-conference schedule, even by their standards. They can still be the best team in the country and take a loss to Oregon, Notre Dame, or Baylor. That can happen if Adebayo remains a rebounding machine in a high-major league, Nelson-Ododa continues her rise as a shot-blocking beast, and Walker continues on an upwards trajectory.

Then there’s the backcourt. We know what to expect from Dangerfield, and to a lesser extend Williams. Evina Westbrook is still awaiting an NCAA waiver to play this year, and if she is eligible, that raises UConn’s ceiling (how much can it even be raised? TBD). The same goes for if Aubrey Griffin can be an immediate impact player.

As always, UConn is a national title contender. A 13th-straight Final Four is at least as likely as it is not, and if you can get to the Final Four, you can also win it.

Worst-Case Scenario:

UConn rolls through conference play and the AAC Tournament, ending its AAC tenure undefeated and going back to the Big East with one of the stranger accomplishments ever in college basketball.

But ultimately, the possibility exists that the odd AAC run is the only thing this season is remembered for. What if the losses of Collier and Samuelson are too much to overcome? What if someone gets hurt? What if Adebayo and Nelson-Ododa just aren’t good enough to match up with elite talent?

UConn has enough on its roster that it’s pretty much guaranteed a top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s being conservative. The Huskies haven’t missed the second weekend since the original Jurassic Park was released (1993) and that won’t change. But a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight exit? It almost happened in both rounds last year and it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

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