STORRS, Conn. (AP)Most coaches know their team’s identity and have a rotation set by the time the NCAA Tournament rolls around.
But for Geno Auriemma and second-seeded UConn (29-5), there are still a lot of questions, because two former starters only recently returned to help the Huskies begin a run at a 12th national title and a 15th straight Final Four.
Guard Azzi Fudd was out for 22 games this season with two knee injuries, before returning for the Big East Tournament. Wing Caroline Ducharme came back in mid-February after sitting out 13 games in concussion protocol. Neither has yet to play her way back into pre-injury form.
But with both Fudd and Ducharme back, the Huskies cruised through the conference tournament. They won their three games by an average of 20 points, after going 7-3 to end the regular season, with each game decided by 10 points or fewer.
Fudd, who had been averaging just under 18 points a game before she was hurt, averaged just 8.3 points over the three tournament games and Ducharme scored a total of four points.
Both are expected to play significant minutes Saturday when the second-seeded Huskies open their NCAA Tournament against No. 15 seed Vermont (25-6), the America East champions. The winner faces either No. 7 seed Baylor (19-12) or No. 10 seed Alabama (20-10) on Monday night.
“It does change how you go about your rotation; it does change the number of minutes that people play and and it can have an effect on the chemistry and fluidity,” Auriemma said. “But it’s a good problem to have right? It’s better than the other alternative. The bottom line is we got better and that can only help.”
Just two players – Aaliyah Edwards and Lou Lopez Senechal – have been healthy enough to play all season for UConn, which had to postpone a game earlier this season because of a lack of healthy bodies.
The Huskies have 10 players available, but are still shorthanded. They have been without former national player of the year Paige Bueckers and incoming freshman Ice Brady all season; both suffered serious knee injuries before the campaign began.
Auriemma even missed time with an illness and while grieving the death of his mother. Associate head coach Chris Dailey missed a game after collapsing on the court during the national anthem.
UConn hopes that like last year, when Bueckers returned from a knee injury just before the postseason, the return of Ducharme and Fudd can help propel the Huskies back into title contention.
“Throughout the whole year, we were used to facing different situations,” Senechal said. “I think that we adjusted really well, towards the Big East Tournament. And I think now our mentality is just to have the same mindset that we had during that Big East Tournament and bring it to the NCAA Tournament.”
Forward Aubrey Griffin, who had back surgery last year, left the Big East title game against Villanova with spasms, but was running up and down the court Friday in practice with no apparent ill effects.
Vermont coach Alisa Kresge said she isn’t worried about who may or may not be playing for Connecticut. But she did allow her players, many of whom grew up as fans of UConn, to spend part of Friday staring at the banners and names hanging in Gampel Pavilion and celebrate where they were about to take the court.
“Take that in for a second, but then when the tip goes off, we’ve got to go to work,” she said.
Baylor, which is playing in its 19th straight NCAA Tournament, finds itself in an unfamiliar position. After losing their last two games and six of their final nine, the Bears are traveling to another school’s home court for the first two rounds for the first time since 2012.
Forward Caitlin Bickle said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Getting to play on the road, I think everything is so much more exciting, the atmosphere so much more exciting within March Madness,” she said.
This is Alabama’s second trip to the NCAA Tournament in the last three years.
Both teams have faced tough competition this season. Baylor has played 11 ranked teams, going 5-6 in those games. The Crimson Tide have played 12 games against current NCAA Tournament teams, going 6-6 in those contests.
“We’re very similar in the adversity we’ve had,” Alabama coach Kristy Curry said. “It’s a brand new season and it will be interesting to see whose will is a little bit stronger than the other one’s.”
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