The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, February 13, 2019

Maybe don't count out UConn—A'ja Wilson interview—must-click women's basketball links

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One of the major themes of this year’s NCAA basketball campaign has been just how beatable Connecticut is. There’s no depth, there’s no first option on offense, the defense is struggling, the recruits are signing elsewhere, you’ve heard it all.

But I’m going to introduce a revolutionary idea here today: what if Connecticut is the team to beat?

I know, I know, crazy. But stick with me.

After Monday night’s rout of South Carolina, UConn is third in offensive points per possession, per HerHoopStats, and 13th in defensive points per possession. Only two other teams are top 15 in both categories: Mississippi State and Baylor.

Now consider the top 16 released by the NCAA on Monday night, and imagine a world where that grouping held. There are several weeks to go, of course, but in Monday’s scenario, Mississippi State would be a one seed… playing in the Albany regional against UConn. Take it from me: that’ll be a 95% UConn crowd, even with the way Mississippi State’s fans travel.

And Baylor, who defeated UConn already, would be in the Greensboro regional… facing what most people think is the best team on paper in the country, the defending champs from Notre Dame, just to get to the Final Four. UConn, it should be noted, already beat Notre Dame this season.

Again, it all can change. But it’s striking to me how much of the reporting around the parity at the top, which looks to me less like UConn regressing and more that other programs have advanced, ignores the fact that Geno Auriemma’s group is vulnerable, sure, but have as good a chance to win a national title as anybody.

Crystal Dangerfield is an elite two-way point guard. Napheesa Collier is getting better by the game, and started out at a high level of consistency. And Katie Lou Samuelson has snapped out of her shooting slump, a 6’3 matchup nightmare on the wing. Auriemma and Chris Dailey have a bit of coaching experience in big games, too.

Is it possible UConn is… underrated? Sounds crazy, but I think it might be true.

The drama is as intense as ever. And there are more challengers than before. Any of ten teams could win it all, and it wouldn’t surprise me.

UConn is definitely one of them.


This Week in Women’s Basketball

Don’t miss this sensational deep dive on Azzi Fudd from Kelyn Soong.

UNC is really rolling now.

Rebecca Lovett is playing high school ball with a pacemaker.

Sydney Ring is playing without a left hand.

Kayla Rainey is playing months after open-heart surgery!

Michelle Smith details Satou Sabally’s rise at Oregon.

(Speaking of Michelle! She won the Mel Greenberg Award and let me just say, SHE DESERVES IT.)

Ashley Joens has been huge for Iowa State, Hayes Gardner details how she landed in Ames.

Mitchell Northam looks at Lamar’s overlooked Chastadie Barrs.

Joni Davis, whose Missouri all-time scoring record is threatened by Sophie Cunningham, has had a remarkable life.

Get excited! Natalie Weiner is writing weekly on women’s basketball. (Don’t just get excited, click, share and tell SB Nation!)

Jeremy Lin offered a thoughtful take on Maya Moore’s faith and decision.

Excellent Megan Gauer on the state of UConn.

Jenn Hatfield tries to place some potential WNBA draft early entry candidates.

Terrific Sabreena Merchant piece on the younger Ogwumikes and Rice’s rise.

Sloane Martin spoke extensively to Cheryl Reeve on what’s next for the Lynx.

Our latest WNBA Mock Draft Big Board is live at High Post Hoops.

And AUDIO CORNER: the latest Around The Rim, and Burn It All Down interviewed Shakyla Hill.


Tweet of the Week


Five at The IX: A’ja Wilson

I spoke to A’ja by phone ahead of her ESPN broadcasting debut Monday night, when her alma mater, South Carolina, took on Connecticut.

HOWARD MEGDAL: So congratulations on the new gig. That makes 13 jobs for you by my unofficial count. I'm just curious, your jump into this SEC Network doing this as well, what's been the biggest positive that's stood out for you from getting these opportunities?

A’JA WILSON: I guess just really honestly putting my degree to work. I think I really wasn't expecting to jump right into to when four years pretty much for the University of South Carolina. But definitely just using this opportunity to capitalize on kind of what I learned. And also just staying within the game. I think that's the beauty of it all is that I'm not fully away from the game. I'm still watching and seeing from a different point of view.

HOWARD MEGDAL: You've spoken really eloquently about the need to change the way the WNBA players are marketed. And you're sort of a test case for this in some fundamental ways. Does this strike you as one of the ways in which you're doing so? The way in which you are a year round presence in the way we're connecting the game of basketball?

A’JA WILSON: Oh yes. Definitely. And I think it also comes from just a fan base that you develop during the collegiate games. But if you're not that special to have those fan bases that can follow you like the South Carolinas, like the Notre Dames, the UConns, or the Tennessees, you can definitely continue to just become a constant marketing tool all year round. I think Chiney Ogwumike does a good job. Candace Parker is doing a great job on TNT. Like, we're all here and we're all also coaching, too, like Kristi Toliver. It just keeps our names out there in the United States.

HOWARD MEGDAL: To that end, making sure that the new CBA allows for more of a financial incentive for the women of the WNBA to A, rest their bodies, B, get an opportunity to be here year round for marketing ... Seems like that's a win for the league too. Is that how you view it?

A’JA WILSON: Yes. I think so. I think we're starting to open up a lot more doors. And I think we're starting to see things. Because last season was crazy. You could probably ask any WNBA player just with the back-to-backs and the constant speed of the season was really crazy. So for us, then you have people like myself that just jump straight into USA Basketball and that led straight into my overseas season. So it was just a lot of wear and tear on our bodies. And our bodies, that's our job. That's our profession and we’re making sure that they stay intact. So making sure with the CBA… I think that's opening up a door for us to really realize our true potential and what we can do here financially.

HOWARD MEGDAL: How do you separate out what it means for Dawn Staley to be doing what she's doing this year with a totally different approach offensively? When you guys won the title I think you got 19 percent of your points from three point range. Last year it was even less. It was 17. 24 percent of your points are coming from three point range this year. It just seems like Dawn really isn't married to a particular system. She really tailors it to individual players. Is that why this happens the way it does?

A’JA WILSON: Yeah. Definitely. I think it goes to show how great Coach Staley is as a coach. You can throw any talent at her. You can throw anybody at her. She's gonna still try to be successful. She's gonna still make things work. And that's the characteristics of a great coach. Like you said, our three point percentage has probably never been this way throughout my four years because we've just had a different style of play. We went more inside. That was where we were making everything happen. And now it's kind of the opposite. So and then next year it could be totally completely different.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Just thinking in terms of the Las Vegas Aces for a moment ... Purely hypothetically, if you were trying to make the case to, let's say a big star center, someone from Australia let's say, how would you make the case for coming to play with the Las Vegas Aces, purely hypothetically?

A’JA WILSON: I mean, hypothetically speaking of course… It's nothing that you can sell, honestly. I don't think this is like college recruiting. I think it just happens when it happens. I think the hypothetically speaking, the player that might be interested in the Las Vegas Aces, I think she just has to come and just be willing to play, trust the system, trust everybody around her, and be really comfortable. I think at the Aces, we're all young, we're all energized. There's no system. We just go out there and we play our hardest. 'Cause that was our first year, so we were writing our own book.

So it's just a matter of if the player wants to be a part of it or not. It's Vegas. You can't really sell Vegas. It will do that by itself. But if the ball is pretty much in her hands, it's just what she want to do with it.