STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Perhaps it’s fitting that UConn’s freshman point guard is named Dangerfield.
Like Crystal Dangerfield’s namesake Rodney, the four-time defending national champions feel they aren’t getting enough respect.
UConn enters the season on a 75-game winning streak, but is ranked third behind Notre Dame and Baylor in the preseason AP poll.
“I think it’s going to let us play with a little chip on our shoulder,” junior Kia Nurse said. “It’s a little different look for us, but definitely something that gives you motivation.”
Nurse and the other Huskies say they want to prove the UConn dynasty didn’t end in Indianapolis in April, when stars Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson capped their careers with an 82-51 win over Syracuse and an unprecedented fourth straight title.
UConn’s “Big Three” won an NCAA-record 151 games during their college careers. Their departures leave the Huskies without a superstar, but not without top talent.
Starters Nurse, who was a key cog in Canada’s Olympic team and sophomore sharp-shooter Katie Lou Samuelson, who averaged 11 points per game last season, both return.
They will be joined by athletic junior Gabby Williams, who already has nine career double-doubles, 6-foot-1 forward Napheesa Collier, who also saw significant playing time last year, and 6-5 senior Natalie Butler, in her second season with the Huskies after transferring from Georgetown.
Senior guard Saniya Chong and the freshman Dangerfield are expected to run the point, and another top recruit, guard Molly Best, is expected to get plenty of playing time.
Still, coach Geno Auriemma is among those taking a wait-and-see approach to the season. He said none of his core players has ever before had to wake up on a college game day knowing that if she doesn’t play well, the team likely will lose.
“They come to practice every day. They see the difference,” he said. “They see there is a huge gap in what it was and what it is and I think they are smart enough to realize that the average person out there has been waiting for four years to see anybody else win.”
Here are some other things to watch for as the Huskies try to win a fifth consecutive national championship and 12th in their history:
UConn, which plays in the relatively weak American Athletic Conference, has again loaded up its nonconference schedule with ranked opponents. The Huskies open at No. 12 Florida State on Nov. 14 before returning home to take on No. 2 Baylor on Nov. 17. They also have games in November and December against top-ranked Notre Dame, No. 6 Maryland, No. 7 Ohio State, No. 8 Texas and No. 21 DePaul. The Huskies have won 114 of their past 118 nonconference games.
Chong says she’s aware this will be her last chance to make an impact on the program. Auriemma has chided the senior guard for inconsistent play and is taking a show-me approach to this season. “She’s always great in November,” he said. “So I’m expecting Saniya to play great in every game of November. Beyond that? I’ve got my fingers crossed.”
Dangerfield says Moriah Jefferson has taken the time to talk to her several times, advising her on how to handle coming into the program as her heir apparent. She says the advice was simple, to be herself and not the next Moriah Jefferson. “When Moriah came in she wasn’t the player that she was her senior year,” Dangerfield said. “We’re two different players as it is. So the comparisons, I don’t really think about them.” Dangerfield says she’s been focused on gaining the respect of the upperclassmen, so they will trust her to make the right decisions in key game situations.
Samuelson missed the national championship game after breaking her left foot in the semifinals. She spent eight weeks in a boot, but says the rehabilitation went well. “Made me work harder too,” she said. “I wanted to expand so many different things in my game. I worked a lot harder this offseason and summer than I did last year.” She opened the preseason on Tuesday with 24 points in an exhibition win over Indiana University of Pennsylvania.