NCAA Women’s Tournament 2024: Why historical power UConn Huskies enter March Madness as ‘underdogs’

For over three decades, the University of Connecticut, led by head coach Geno Auriemma, has been the driving force in women’s college basketball.

The Huskies have made 35 consecutive NCAA Women’s Tournament appearances, 29 straight Sweet 16s and won a record 11 national championships.


But as UConn gears up for another tournament run, which will begin Saturday against Jackson State, there is an unfamiliar air around Storrs, Conn.

For the first time since 2005, the Huskies did not receive a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Instead, they were placed as the No. 3 seed in the tricky Portland 3 region, which features six of the top-20 teams in the NET rankings. And good luck finding many brackets outside of Connecticut that have the Huskies as champions. They have largely been absent from that discussion.

“The players at UConn today have a unique opportunity,” Auriemma said during the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce breakfast Monday. “They are actually going into an NCAA Tournament as underdogs. That never happens at Connecticut. You are always expected to win the whole thing.

“We won 31 games last year and we lost in the Sweet 16 and everybody said, ‘The program is dead. The demise of the UConn program.’ Because you’re supposed to win all the time.

And not just win all the time, win a national championship all the time. So, when no one’s expecting you to win it, that’s a little bit of a motivator in itself.”

The main issue for the Huskies this season is the same one that’s been plaguing them for a few seasons now: injuries.

From preseason, when Jana El Alfy tore her Achilles while playing for Egypt, to this month when Amari DeBerry was ruled out for the NCAA Women’s Tournament due to a concussion, the Huskies have dealt with a stream of season-ending ailments.

Here’s a rundown of all the season-ending injuries to UConn players:

Jana El Alfy: Torn Achilles

Azzi Fudd: Torn ACL

Ayanna Patterson: Knee surgery

Aubrey Griffin: Torn ACL

Caroline Ducharme: Head and neck injuries

Amari DeBerry: Concussion

Ayanna Patterson - Women's Basketball - University of Connecticut Athletics

They are down to eight active players, and that includes Aaliyah Edwards, who will have to play with a mask after breaking her nose during the Big East Women’s Tournament.

If there’s a silver lining for the Huskies, it’s that they still have a number of key players available, including stars such as Edwards and former Naismith Player of the Year Paige Bueckers.

Those two are about as good of a one-two punch as you can find in the country. Add in veteran point guard Nika Muhl, who will be a WNBA draft pick later this year and Big East Freshman of the Year Ashlynn Shade, and you can see how the Huskies were still able to finish the season with a 29-5 record and ranked No. 10 in the country.

UConn’s top-level talent is simply too much for most opponents, which is why 28 of their 29 wins came by double digits, including 14 by 30-plus points, and boasted a ridiculous plus-30.9 net rating. They should cruise to the Sweet 16, especially with their first two games coming at home.

After that, however, Auriemma is correct that UConn will become underdogs. During the regular season they played five games against teams that received a No. 3 seed or higher in the tournament. They were 0-5 in those games and lost all by double digits. None of those teams — South Carolina, Texas, Notre Dame, UCLA and NC State — are in their region, but it’s proof of the uphill battle the Huskies face to contend for a title this season.

Outside of their top-four players, freshman KK Arnold is the only active player averaging at least 20 minutes a game. If Auriemma wants to go to the bench, his two remaining options that have played regular minutes throughout the season are also both freshman — forward Ice Brady and guard Qadence Samuels.

You need elite players, depth and experience to win a title. The Huskies have the first ingredient, but are now seriously lacking the latter two. All it takes is one rolled ankle or a bit of foul trouble and they are in serious trouble. Even in a best case scenario, the likes of Bueckers, Edwards and Muhl are hardly going to get a break in any game.

As long as they have Bueckers, the Huskies have a chance. What they don’t have as March Madness begins is any margin for error.

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