UConn women's basketball coach Auriemma passes torch from Collier to Walker

Published on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 21:22


PHILADELPHIA - Pressure can be an issue when you’re trying to turn a lump of coal into a diamond in short order, but the UConn women’s basketball team has some pretty nice gems that are starting to sparkle already.

Still, coach Geno Auriemma isn’t minimizing the weight on Megan Walker’s shoulders when he talks about what to expect from the junior forward this season.

“It’s probably a lot to ask but she’s probably going to have to have the kind of season that Pheesa (Napheesa Collier) had for us to go to the Final Four,” Auriemma said Monday during American Athletic Conference media day. “Anything less than that and it’s probably going to be a struggle.”

So, all it seems Walker has to do this season is average 21 points, 11 rebounds, become a first team All-American, win league player of the year, and lead the Huskies to the Final Four.

Actually, that sounds fine with Walker. She’s not worried about such expectations adding pressure.

“That’s great. That means he believes in me. And I believe in myself,” Walker said. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been waiting on this time.”

The reason Auriemma is asking so much of Walker right now is the volume of scoring and experience the Huskies lost in the offseason. Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson’s graduation could impact the Huskies harder than the loss of previous dominant players did.

“Over the past number of years, whenever we’ve graduated two players like the two that just graduated this year, we always had ready-made replacements that had already proven themselves to be All-American type players. So the transition wasn’t as drastic,” said Auriemma, whose team was voted preseason No. 1 in the league by its coaches as expected. “This is one of those years where not only did we lose the most points we’ve ever lost combined with two kids, but there’s no easy answer to ‘Where are we going to get all those points?’ ”

Auriemma said his program is in a “state of flux” as it waits for the likes of Walker and Crystal Dangerfield to take the mantle as the next Husky superstars.

“Even after Stewie (Breanna Stewart), Moriah (Jefferson) and (Morgan) Tuck graduated,” Auriemma said, “we knew what we had in Gabby (Williams) and Katie Lou (Samuelson) and Napheesa. This year is going to be a real challenge.”

Walker, the 6-foot-1 junior from Chesterfield, Virginia, is just a bit more of an unknown. Yes, she made third-team All-AAC as a sophomore and was on the league’s postseason all-tournament team. But there is a great deal more expected of her in 2019-20.

“She got herself in great shape. She looks better, she’s moving a lot quicker,” Auriemma said of Walker. “I think the big change for her is just being consistent. She scores a lot in streaks. And those streaks have got to be more consistent. And her defense has got to get better.”

In addition to the pressure on her to score like Collier, the pressure on Walker to defend like Collier is just as immense.

“It’s going to be a challenge because a lot of time she’s either guarding somebody on the perimeter who is quicker than her or somebody on the inside that’s bigger than her,” Auriemma said. “And Pheesa faced the same problem.”

Walker averaged 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds last season as a sophomore. Those numbers will seemingly have to increase this season, and Walker says she’s capable of doing so.

“The jump from freshmen year to sophomore year was tremendous,” Walker said. “And there’s another jump coming from sophomore year to junior year.”

The No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2017, Walker has shown in some games she’s capable of dominating. She had 34 points on 11-of-16 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds in the Huskies’ win over Tulane Jan. 16.

And although she hasn’t quite ascended to legendary status yet in the UConn lore, Walker says those who already have impacted her enough to the point where she’s in position to make big strides now.

“Having those great players like Phee, Lou, Gabby, Kiah (Stokes) come before were basically grooming me for this moment, this time,” Walker said. “I’m more excited than anything.”

The Huskies play their first regular season game Nov. 10 against Cal and begin American Conference play Nov. 17 here in Philadelphia against Temple.

NOTES: Auriemma said Evina Westbrook’s knee is better but the junior transfer from Tennessee will be battling the nagging injury for some time. “There’s going to be some pain in her knee all year. That’s just something she’s going to have to deal with,” Auriemma said. … Likewise, Dangerfield (hip) continues to try and fight through some pain after offseason surgery. “If we go three days in a row, that fourth day is difficult. It has to be monitored,” Auriemma said.

Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 21:22. Updated: Tuesday, 15 October 2019 21:25.