Here is my advance for tonight’s game at Louisville …
The UConn women’s basketball team boasts several players with deft shooting and playing-making ability in its four-guard lineup. And freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis has proven to a prolific scorer off the bench.
Entering tonight’s game against No. 20 Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center (7; CBSSN), the third-ranked Huskies are ranked fourth in the nation in scoring (79.8). They are first in field goal percentage (.489), assists (20.4) and assist to turnover ratio (1.4), 13th in made 3-pointers per game (7.5) and 16th in 3-point shooting percentage (.365).
The statistics are certainly impressive. But UConn has proven this season that it is equally as productive defensively. Arguably the best in the nation. And it is in this phase of the game where the Huskies do not receive their due recognition.
“I don’t know that you can have anywhere near the kind of success that we’ve had without being able to play the kind of defense that we’ve played,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I think those two things go hand-in-hand with however many number of games or Big East championships or tournament championships or national championships. None of those would be possible if we weren’t a really, really good defensive team. And you have to be a good defensive team every year. It can’t be like some years you are, some years you’re not. And we probably don’t get the credit that some other people might get because we don’t talk about it. We don’t have any special defenses and special presses and we don’t have fancy names for what we do defensively. And we’ve had so many really good offensive players play for us that it’s easy to overlook that their good defensive players, because everybody’s just so fixated on how good they are offensively. And that’s OK. I don’t mind that.’’
A prerequisite to playing at UConn is having the ability to score. However, the ability and the desire to play defense is what earns playing time in Auriemma’s system. And this team, led by junior Kelly Faris, takes great pride in shutting down the opposition.
The Huskies (21-2, 9-1 Big East) lead the nation in scoring defense (44.6) and field goal percentage defense (.300), which would account for team single-season records if the season ended today. They would also tie the Division I record in field goal percentage, which they set during the undefeated season of 2009-10.
UConn, who is ranked sixth nationally with a plus-12.7 rebounding advantage, has held 13 opponents to their lowest scoring output of the season.
“They do a great job of switching,’’ Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. “A lot of people don’t give them credit for their defense. They play out in passing lanes. They pressure the ball. They play personnel as well as anybody I’ve seen.’’
The Huskies utilize only two true post players in their eight-man rotation – 6-foot-5 sophomore Stefanie Dolson and 6-3 freshman Kiah Stokes. This has afforded Auriemma the opportunity to employ more fullcourt pressure this season.
UConn’s pressure, as well as its active halfcourt man-to-man defensive looks, has produced an average of 21.3 turnovers and 12.5 steals, which is ranked 13th nationally and would also account for a team single-season record.
The Huskies have forced at least 20 turnovers in 14 games this season, and at least 25 in seven games. Fifth-ranked Duke (15), No. 1 Baylor (14) and South Florida (12) are the only teams that have committed less than 16.
UConn has converted these turnovers into 576 points (25.0).
“I think coming into this year we thought we could be a really good defensive team,’’ Dolson said. “And I think we’ve lived up to it so far, but we still have a lot of room to get better. I think defense for us every year there’s always an emphasis on it. And we had a couple games where Coach wasn’t pleased with our defense. So I think we’ve definitely been stepping up our defense just to prove to him and everyone else that our defense is the best in the country and that we can just buckle down and not let people score.’’
Second-ranked Notre Dame (74; OT), Baylor (66), South Florida (62) and West Virginia (60) are the only teams to reach 60 against the Huskies. There have been 15 teams that have failed to reach 50 and 11 that have failed to reach 40.
Also, 11 teams have shot below 30.0 percent from the field. Only Baylor (47.9) and West Virginia (44.9) have shot better than 40.0 percent.
The Huskies last week held Duke and No. then-No. 13 Rutgers to a combined 79 points and 26.5 percent shooting from the field, holding both teams to season-lows in scoring and shooting percentage.
“This particular group … I’m surprised, but we’re a really good defensive team,’’ Auriemma said. “Maybe the fact that we’ve got four interchangeable players. We switch a lot of screens. It’s difficult for teams to get comfortable against us because you might have a different kid guarding you every time down the floor. But the effort (has been) unbelievable. We kind of pride ourselves on that. We think we’re the best defensive team in the country. Kids buy into that.’’
While the Huskies are ultimately who must execute during games, Auriemma gave credit to the scouting reports prepared by associate head coach Chris Dailey and assistant coaches Marisa Moseley Shea Ralph.
Auriemma said that Ralph prepared the scouting report for Rutgers. Moseley will assemble the report for Louisville. Dailey will do so for No. 14 Georgetown Saturday and then the cycle will return to Ralph for UConn’s game at Oklahoma Feb. 13.
“One thing that doesn’t maybe get as much notoriety is the scouting reports that our guys come up with, Chris, Marisa and Shea,’’ Auriemma said. “They take it real seriously. Those guys are really, really serious about this stuff and all three of them, when it’s their turn, they are really into the scouting report and they make sure that the players are really into it. And by the time game time comes around there’s very little that our players don’t know that they have to know about what we’re trying to do and how we’re going to defend them. Preparation is a big, big part. Defense is a lot of effort, don’t get me wrong. And so is rebounding. Those two things are all about effort. No question.’’
UConn has proven the ability repeatedly lock down the opposition is a collective effort. And, while the Huskies might not gain a great deal of notoriety for their success defensively, it does not come as a surprise to the players.
In their minds, they believe that their success is a byproduct of the significant amount of time that they spend on the defensive part of the game in practice.
“The goal for our defense really is to make it look like we have six players on the court to their five,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. “We’ve got to be everywhere at once. We try to outsmart the other team, basically. We’ve been working on it so much in practice that we’re just like no one should ever score on us. So I think when you take that much pride in your defense and you work on it so much you’re definitely going to be a little (mad) when they actually get a bucket.’’