When the UConn women's team takes the floor this Sunday to face Hartford in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, 12 days will have elapsed since they last played. The immediate concern is that the Huskies might come out flat, or perhaps a little rusty from the time off. But the break could be good for several reasons.
First, UConn rotates six to seven players, which means any time off late in the season is welcome. Second, it could allow sophomore center Heather Buck to return to the lineup after missing five games with a foot injury. According to the Hartford Courant, Buck practiced earlier this week and her primary concern was getting back into "playing shape" after being sidelined for three weeks.
But there is one advantage Hartford has over UConn heading into Sunday's game: depth. Coached by former Huskies player Jen Rizzotti, Hartford regularly rotates nine to 10 players. Details via the Courant:
And the players at the end of the bench aren't just subbing in during garbage time. They are playing at crucial moments. Freshman Alyssa Englert, who averages 10 minutes a game, played three minutes in the first half against BU and has two steals. Senior Amanda Weaver, who averages 11 minutes, played four minutes in the first half and had two rebounds and two points. In the second half, she hit a three-pointer to put Hartford up 43-40 with 10 minutes left.
The reason: to prepare them for moments like the one they will face this weekend.
"It's very unusual," Hartford senior point guard Jackie Smith told the Courant. "I haven't seen a lot of teams with same amount of depth. It's a huge advantage come tournament time. That was a big key for us, especially in the [semifinal] win against UMBC. We were able to wear out their shooters."
And depth will be even more critical if Buck returns for the Huskies. But even if she doesn't, head coach Geno Auriemma continually stresses the importance of playing defense without fouling. When you are working with six or seven players -- two of whom are freshmen starters -- you find ways to keep them out of foul trouble. Because if you don't, you're not the No. 1 team in the country, go 32-1 during the regular season, or 16-0 in the conference.
If anyone knows what makes UConn successful it's Rizzotti. She starred for the Huskies in the mid-90s, and helped lead the team to its first championship in 1995. She also coached Maya Moore, Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson when they were members of USA Basketball's Under-18 team.
"I remember telling Geno that Bria would be ready to play right away and that Stefanie would be really good once she figured out how to play at the college speed," Rizzotti said, according to the Associated Press. "It kind of worked out the way I thought it would."
Despite their history, Moore says she will have little trouble concentrating on the task at hand come game time. "I have a lot of respect for Coach Rizzotti and her program," she said. "But we don't really pay too much attention to anything but playing really well."
Moore's teammates undoubtedly share those same sentiments.