PHILADELPHIA - Pressure can be an issue when you‚Äôre trying to turn a lump of coal into a diamond in short order, but the UConn women‚Äôs basketball team has some pretty nice gems that are starting to sparkle already.
Still, coach Geno Auriemma isn‚Äôt minimizing the weight on Megan Walker‚Äôs shoulders when he talks about what to expect from the junior forward this season.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs probably a lot to ask but she‚Äôs probably going to have to have the kind of season that Pheesa (Napheesa Collier) had for us to go to the Final Four,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said Monday during American Athletic Conference media day. ‚ÄúAnything less than that and it‚Äôs probably going to be a struggle.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs not worried about such expectations adding pressure.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs great. That means he believes in me. And I believe in myself,‚ÄĚ Walker said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm looking forward to it. I‚Äôve been waiting on this time.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs graduation could impact the Huskies harder than the loss of previous dominant players did.
‚ÄúOver the past number of years, whenever we‚Äôve 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‚Äôt as drastic,‚ÄĚ said Auriemma, whose team was voted preseason No. 1 in the league by its coaches as expected. ‚ÄúThis is one of those years where not only did we lose the most points we‚Äôve ever lost combined with two kids, but there‚Äôs no easy answer to ‚ÄėWhere are we going to get all those points?‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
Auriemma said his program is in a ‚Äústate of flux‚ÄĚ as it waits for the likes of Walker and Crystal Dangerfield to take the mantle as the next Husky superstars.
‚ÄúEven after Stewie (Breanna Stewart), Moriah (Jefferson) and (Morgan) Tuck graduated,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said, ‚Äúwe knew what we had in Gabby (Williams) and Katie Lou (Samuelson) and Napheesa. This year is going to be a real challenge.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs postseason all-tournament team. But there is a great deal more expected of her in 2019-20.
‚ÄúShe got herself in great shape. She looks better, she‚Äôs moving a lot quicker,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said of Walker. ‚ÄúI 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.‚ÄĚ
In addition to the pressure on her to score like Collier, the pressure on Walker to defend like Collier is just as immense.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs going to be a challenge because a lot of time she‚Äôs either guarding somebody on the perimeter who is quicker than her or somebody on the inside that‚Äôs bigger than her,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said. ‚ÄúAnd Pheesa faced the same problem.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs capable of doing so.
‚ÄúThe jump from freshmen year to sophomore year was tremendous,‚ÄĚ Walker said. ‚ÄúAnd there‚Äôs another jump coming from sophomore year to junior year.‚ÄĚ
The No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2017, Walker has shown in some games she‚Äôs capable of dominating. She had 34 points on 11-of-16 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds in the Huskies‚Äô win over Tulane Jan. 16.
And although she hasn‚Äôt quite ascended to legendary status yet in the UConn lore, Walker says those who already have impacted her enough to the point where she‚Äôs in position to make big strides now.
‚ÄúHaving those great players like Phee, Lou, Gabby, Kiah (Stokes) come before were basically grooming me for this moment, this time,‚ÄĚ Walker said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm more excited than anything.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs knee is better but the junior transfer from Tennessee will be battling the nagging injury for some time. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs going to be some pain in her knee all year. That‚Äôs just something she‚Äôs going to have to deal with,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said. ‚Ä¶ Likewise, Dangerfield (hip) continues to try and fight through some pain after offseason surgery. ‚ÄúIf we go three days in a row, that fourth day is difficult. It has to be monitored,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said.