The deadline for the UConn Huskies is Jan. 1st. That's when head coach Geno Auriemma says he will know the real identity of this season's roster because right now there are still some unknowns and a few things to address.
In the pursuit of a successful 2022-23 season, Auriemma has a list of items to tackle in order of magnitude of importance. Keeping the roster healthy is at the very top of that list, where it is probably typed out in bold font, underlined and highlighted.
"If we can get everybody healthy and get everybody on the court at the same time, I'm anxious to see what that looks like," the coach told CBS Sports. "I'm anxious to see what that kind of team looks like."
Last season was an injury-plagued one, which led to constantly changing lineups and nine different players starting in 11 or more games. The team is technically not in the clear yet because some players, although they are close, are still not 100% recovered from surgeries.
Grad student Dorka Juhász is still "getting up to speed" as she recovers from a a broken wrist and some long-term knee issues. Caroline Ducharmer is not quite fully recovered from undergoing hip surgery in April. Last year, Aubrey Griffin dealt with a high ankle sprain, a leg injury, and back problems. Her season was officially cut short after undergoing back surgery in January. She's getting healthier, but Auriemma said some days she is good, and some days she's not.
And of course, the team took a massive hit when Paige Bueckers tore her ACL during the summer, leaving the Huskies without their most impactful player.
Bueckers missed 19 games last season after undergoing surgery for an anterior tibial plateau fracture and a lateral meniscus tear in her left leg. Auriemma said the team was "disorganized" right after the incident, but eventually Christyn Williams stepped up as the leading scorer in her absence. Bueckers came back and gave her team the extra push to make it all the way to the NCAA tournament championship game. But now Bueckers is sidelined and Williams is gone, as are Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Evina Westbrook – who were also key players in last season's roster.
That's not to say the well is dry -- this is UConn, after all. However, Auriemma said it's hard to predict how this roster will perform without some of last year's top contributors.
"The players that we had last year, you know what to expect from them, but you don't know what to expect from them when they are on the floor and three of our starters from last year are not there," he said. "They look good right now, let's see how they look all together against another team."
Success will take a full team effort, but the main piece will be Azzi Fudd.
Fudd dealt with a foot injury last season and missed some playing time, but overall she had a good freshman season and made the 2022 Big East All-Freshman Team. She was third on the team in scoring with 12.1 points per game and registered double figures in 15 games. Fudd was also the Huskies' best 3-point shooter at 43 percent from beyond the arc.
Auriemma said Fudd was already set to take a bigger role from last season and that he was looking forward to watching her play alongside Bueckers for a full year. Now, Fudd has to embrace the spotlight more than ever.
"My conversations with Azzi have been, you have to be better than you were last year in every area of the game. Now, because of what happened, you are going to have to be even better than that. And what does that mean? That means everything. That means not only at what you are good at."
It's a big task, but the coach said since the first day of practice, Fudd has been "far and away" the best player on the floor every day.
The team's strength is going to be its offense. Fudd is the best shooter so far, but Caroline Ducharme and Lou Lopez Sénéchal are also "very, very good shooters," according to Auriemma. He describes Lopez as a "natural born scorer" that knows how to get to the basket and also has a great mid-range game.
The coach is a big fan of Lopez, who played four seasons at Fairfield and led the Stags to the 2022 MAAC Championship.
"She's a veteran, she's solid. I never have to worry about Lou," Auriemma said. "She shows up every single day and it's the same everyday. I wish I had 12 Lous."
In addition, he said that Aubrey Griffin will make her fair share of baskets, and that Nika Mühl has improved significantly – particularly in her 3-point percentage.
"Overall I think we have the potential to be a really, really good shooting team. It's just a matter of how hard we have to work to make those shots without Paige," Auriemma said, which is a plan that has to work because the defense is not looking great at the moment.
"We probably have to make all those shots because we can't stop anybody from scoring."
Auriemma said Bueckers' absence hits them hard in this area because her basketball IQ definitely helps so much on defense. The team is also struggling with rebounding.
Mühl was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, but she'll need help. Depending on how fast she adjusts to college basketball, freshman Ayanna Patterson could be part of the solution to this problem.
"Ayanna is probably our best athlete," Auriemma said. "She is going to be one of our better defenders, gonna be one of our better rebounders. Her offense will come along as the season progresses."
Patterson was ESPN's No. 4 player in the class of 2022, and just one spot below her is Isuneh "Ice" Brady. Auriemma said Brady has a very mature game for a freshman. She plays at a good pace and never feels rushed. She can also make open shots, but the main question Auriemma has is how quickly she will get her conditioning level up to the college level, although she's already made "tremendous" progress.
The third freshman, Inêz Bettencourt, also has her own learning curve to tackle. There are days when she fits in perfectly at the D-1 college level and other days when she struggles, which Auriemma said is perfectly normal for a young player.
There is a lot of potential in this roster, but potential always comes with questions.
"We don't know what our young players are going to do. How are they going to perform and how are they going to react during the Texas game? During the NC State game? The Maryland game or at Notre Dame? All these games that we have coming up that are all going to be before Christmas." Auriemma said. "It's going to be a huge challenge for them, but it will tell us come Jan. 1, 'this is who we are, and this is what we are going to have to deal with.'"
Auriemma believes that honesty is the best policy and said he might as well be open about where the team is at in this moment because fans will see it for themselves when the UConn season officially tips off Nov. 10.
He said there are years when he feels confident about his team and he'll publicly predict that the Huskies are going to win the national championship – which has often become true. However this is not one of those seasons, at least not yet.
"That doesn't mean if we get lucky we can't, but if you ask me, are we good enough to win it? No," the coach said. "If Paige was playing I would tell you we are going to win it, but without her, no, we are not going to win it. But if we get lucky and somebody screws up, you never know."
It's a big statement, but Auriemma said that it should be taken with a grain of salt in November.
"It's a long season," he added. "Whatever anybody predicts today, means absolutely nothing when it comes to March."