COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In just less than five months, the UConn women's basketball team could be -- probably will be -- back here at Nationwide Arena cutting down the nets. That's how good the Huskies are once again, a supremely talented team fueled by the rare disappointment of not finishing last season the way they'd hoped, losing in the national semifinals.
But it's important not to detract from what the Huskies are setting out to do by assuming it's already a foregone conclusion. They still have to work for this. UConn's 2017-18 journey started officially Sunday with a predictable dismantling of No. 10 Stanford 78-53.
The Huskies again have a slate of nonconference opponents designed to test them. Whether any actually do that remains to be seen. But even if they don't, the Huskies will find ways to improve. They always do.
"I thought our defense in the first half was really, really, really good," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of holding the Cardinal to 23.4 percent shooting in the first quarter and 7.1 in the second quarter. "The effort and the execution was good, and it led to a lot of stuff on the other end. That's kind of who we are: We try to create stuff off our defense and go from there."
OK, so a good mark even from the toughest grader for the opening 20 minutes. After that?
"The second half was not worth mentioning," Auriemma said. "We changed our defense a little bit, and I must not have explained it properly. Because I think they thought, 'Coach said play no defense.' So I've gotta change my wording."
Auriemma's sarcasm game is already in midseason form, but it basically always is. He also added, though, in all seriousness, that his team looked a little weary and didn't have a great week of preparation.
"We are tired," Auriemma said. "I can tell. You can feel it. This week will be better."
Stanford will improve as well from this time in Columbus, which will host the Women's Final Four on March 30-April 1, 2018. The Cardinal reached the program's 13th Final Four last season, but lost three seniors and all the leadership they brought. The Cardinal for the most part are young and inexperienced, but this is Stanford, after all. Realistically, coach Tara VanDerveer knew she was taking her Cardinal into two very tough games back-to-back to start the season, as they lost to No. 5 Ohio State on Friday.
But why not toss them into the pool and see if they can swim a little? The Pac-12 will be a heck of a challenge this season, and at least the Cardinal will enter it knowing they've already played the toughest team of all.
UConn returns four starters, three of them first-team All-Americans. The Huskies added transfer Azurá Stevens from Duke, and freshmen who'll have time to improve without a lot of pressure to do so.
"I don't think she was ready for college basketball last year, mentally or physically. ... The mindset and her whole demeanor is completely different this year. She always had the talent. Now she's confident enough to do it."Geno Auriemma on sophomore Crystal Dangerfield
Of course, there is always pressure at UConn, from Auriemma -- who was still fault-finding in the final minute of Sunday's game -- and from the Huskies themselves. The standard set isn't just maintained by the stellar coaching staff. It's embraced and enforced by the players.
Meeting such a high bar isn't easily accomplished, but it's usually attained by the Huskies, including sophomore point guard Crystal Dangerfield, who was the player of the game Sunday, leading UConn with 24 points. She made 6-of-7 3-point shots, and also had six rebounds and three assists.
"I want to be better than I was freshman year," said Dangerfield, who came off the bench in 25 of 31 games last season and averaged 6.1 PPG. "I was angry after last year's loss [to Mississippi State]. But I also had to let it go. We have a new year, a new team. I'm earning my teammates' trust and learning from them as well."
Dangerfield came to UConn last year with a ton of accolades, but Auriemma wasn't happy with her for most of the season.
"I don't think she was ready for college basketball last year, mentally or physically," Auriemma said. "She didn't know how to push beyond; every little thing bothered her. And she let herself get frustrated when she couldn't do what she wanted to do.
"The mindset and her whole demeanor is completely different this year. She always had the talent. Now she's confident enough to do it. And she has to play a lot. I wasn't willing to do that last year. I don't believe in playing freshmen a lot when they don't do the things that you know they can and should. Because then there's no coaching them after that."
Dangerfield acknowledges that it was hard, but it always is for freshmen.
"At the time, of course, I didn't like it," she said. "But now, I'm grateful for it. It's made me better and gotten me off to a good start this year."
Katie Lou Samuelson, a junior who had 21 points for UConn, said the Huskies have watched Dangerfield show her consistency in the place that matters most.
"She's more confident because she shows it in practice every day," Samuelson said. "Freshman year, you have really bad days. You don't always realize it, but those are the reasons you're not playing well in games. When she's having stretches of days where she plays so well in practice, we know it's going to transition right into the games."
"She was way better defensively than I expected her to be. ... We're pretty fortunate to have someone like that coming off the bench."Geno Auriemma on Azurá Stevens
Sunday also was the official debut of Stevens, who had eight points -- albeit on 4-of-11 shooting -- and eight rebounds.
"Azurá did all right," Auriemma said. "She was way better defensively than I expected her to be. Because she's been struggling with that in practice. She didn't shoot the ball as well on offense. She's been shooting great in practice. So, who knows?
"But she did a couple of things today that I was happy to see. Things we've been harping on her about: blocking shots, scoring in the lane instead of settling for jump shots. We're pretty fortunate to have someone like that coming off the bench."
UConn returns home to face Cal at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs on Friday, and Maryland at the Xcel Center in Hartford on Sunday.
The Huskies had a look this opening weekend at where they hope their season concludes next spring. And even though, as Auriemma points out, the atmosphere and environment of a Final Four will make the same building feel very different, it was still good for the top-ranked team.
"If we get that opportunity to get back here, we'll have that experience," Samuelson said. "The biggest thing is making sure we don't think about that. Nothing is guaranteed, we know that as a team. That's clearer to us from what happened last year."