Breanna Stewart preps for debut
All eyes on the freshman expected to be the next great thing in Huskies history
STORRS, Conn. -- Detroit has its auto show. Women's basketball has media day at the University of Connecticut.
Come, crowd around to see the latest innovation, the new design that will set a standard and capture the public imagination in years to come.
Same time, same place every year.
But even at a school for which the annual unveiling of the next highly anticipated star seems as much a part of the autumn calendar as hot cider and pumpkin carving, this year feels different. Breanna Stewart has yet to play a game for Connecticut. She has yet to score her first point, grab her first rebound, block her first shot or draw her first regular-season rebuke from Geno Auriemma. And still people in Storrs sound a little like they're talking about the flying car of tomorrow come to life when discussing the unassuming 6-foot-4 forward from upstate New York and consensus next great thing in women's basketball.
TOP 10 FOCUS
Baylor was the unanimous choice as the No. 1 team in our Preseason Top 25. As the rest of the country tries to stop the Lady Bears from repeating as national champions, we are taking an in-depth look at the other nine teams in our top 10.
So how does UConn, which we ranked No. 2, stack up?
"With freshmen standouts like Breanna Stewart joining successful but hungry-for-another-title veterans," espnW's Mechelle Voepel says, "the Huskies look like the team best equipped to challenge Baylor for the national championship."
They meet in Hartford on Feb. 18.
People here have seen great players come and go. Maybe Stewart will be greater than all those Huskies who came before her; maybe she won't. But it already seems safe to say she will be different.
Consider how fifth-year post player Heather Buck, who spent her first year at the school in the company of an unbeaten team that featured Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery, told the story of her first on-court exposure to Stewart over the summer. The 6-3 Buck guarded Stewart at game point in a pickup contest on the freshman's first full day on campus.
"I know she can shoot 3s, but it's OK, she's not going to shoot a trail 3 on the break, so I'm fine on the foul line," Buck recalled of her inner monologue as the kid who hadn't yet purchased her textbooks came down the court. "So she catches the ball, lines right up and shoots it. And she swished it, from several feet behind the 3-point line."
It was the kind of first impression that left a mark. Along the same lines, fifth-year guard Caroline Doty said that for the first few days Stewart was on the court over the summer, each shot she blocked -- and there were many -- elicited a chorus of appreciative oohs and ahs, the kind of reaction that comes when even athletes themselves see something out of the ordinary in their midst. After a few days, though, the noise stopped, not because Stewart ceased blocking shots but because the outcome of venturing into the lane no longer registered as a surprise.
"She's, I don't know, she's Bree," Buck said. "She's kind of indescribable, I feel like. Because she's so goofy and then serious, and she's just got a lot going on and she handles it all well. She's been really incredible to watch too, in the way that she's so versatile a player and she does some things that you're like, 'Wow, that did just happen.'"
The résumé speaks for itself. The national prep player of the year last season, as judged by just about anyone who traffics in such accolades, Stewart posted the gaudy numbers you would expect at Cicero North High School, averaging 26.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game in her final season.
But she also showed off her game in settings beyond her years. She didn't just make the U.S. roster for the Pan-Am Games in 2011 as a rising high school senior; she led that team in scoring and rebounding while sharing the court with proven college players such as Hofstra's Shante Evans, Oral Roberts' Kevi Luper and current WNBA player Katelan Redmon.
Pressed for a point of comparison on Stewart's offensive style, Auriemma came up with George Gervin and referenced Oscar Robertson in talking about his freshman's ability to play at her own steady speed regardless of situation. A subsequent informal poll of Connecticut players turned up nary a soul who recognized Gervin's name, let alone his game (including Stewart, who suggested she would Google him), but their descriptions of her had a familiar ring.
"She can score from wherever," Doty said. "If she's left open outside of the 3-point line, she can nail it. If she's underneath the basket, she can work around the defense and still get up for a layup. It's funny. There's no bad angle for her. When she gets the ball at the foul line, she can either hit that consistently or pump fake and go right by them in one step and be at the rim.
"She's an unbelievable finisher. It's pretty much if you lob the ball up, she can go up and get it. It's great not only having someone that big and long but someone that athletic."
It's easy to forget this is someone who was born a few months before Auriemma won his 200th game at Connecticut. There is going to be a learning curve.
A year ago, the player at the center of the storm of attention was Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Rated by many as the nation's top recruit, she took Maya Moore's number and, reasonably or not, some of the expectations that formerly rested with the four-time All-American. Mosqueda-Lewis had her ups and downs. She was the leading scorer for a team that reached the Final Four. By any rational standard, her freshman season was a success.
But can anything really prepare you for playing at Connecticut and all the on- and off-court demands that encompasses?
"No," Mosqueda-Lewis said, her brevity underscoring how little room for debate there is. "There's no way, I don't think, to be fully prepared for how intense and how competitive UConn basketball is. I mean, day in and day out, you're going to be tested, whether it's by coach or by teammates or by practice players. You've got to learn to be consistent; you've got to learn to be mentally tough, as well as keeping your body right and staying healthy.
"It's not an easy thing, especially coming in as a freshman and not really being used to that all the time."
When it came to Stewart, Mosqueda-Lewis added her own affirmation. And at least Stewart seems to have picked up one key phrasing.
"I wouldn't say yelled," the freshman offered when asked if Auriemma had, in fact, yelled at her in the first week of practice. "It was more like constructive criticism."
If she's left open outside of the 3-point line, she can nail it. If she's underneath the basket, she can work around the defense and still get up for a layup. It's funny. There's no bad angle for her. She's an unbelievable finisher.” -- Caroline Doty on freshman teammate Breanna Stewart
Auriemma will try to rein in the stampede to Springfield, throwing out the suggestion that after a few early practices, it was actually freshman Morgan Tuck, the 6-2 high school All-American from Illinois, who looked most impressive in the post. But in a season sure to shower attention on the singular skills of players like Brittney Griner and onetime Connecticut signee Elena Delle Donne, it feels like Auriemma, too, is pleased to have a card like Stewart in his poker hand.
"A lot of the kids that you coach today, their confidence is fake, it's all posturing," Auriemma said. "They act like they're confident, they think they're confident, then the minute something goes wrong, they fall apart. The difference with these two kids, Breanna and Morgan, is they're really confident. They're really confident, and they know it and they play like it and it's real. There's no fake about these two."
The Huskies reached the Final Four last season, and if not for a wild finish in a semifinal against Notre Dame, might have played for the championship. Tiffany Hayes is gone from that team, but everyone else is back. Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson, the media day sensations two years ago, are firmly entrenched as All-American candidates as juniors. Mosqueda-Lewis is saying all the right things about playing defense and complementing a jump shot that is a thing of beauty when it's on. With Doty and Kelly Faris, the Huskies have leaders who won't stop leading if they don't get the most shots.
But if Connecticut is to be more than the best of the rest after Baylor and challenge the Lady Bears in a regular-season meeting in February or any potential rematch in New Orleans, it's likely to have a lot to do with Stewart.
"I was excited because I felt like my turnover ratio was going to go down because I could just lob it to her and she'd catch anything," Faris said jokingly. "That was my first thought, and then I came back to reality and realized I've still got to be careful with my passes. But I said it from the summer, I'm really excited to get to play with her and pumped to see what it's going to be like to get in a game with her."
A lot of people in this state and well beyond are interested to see what the game is like with Stewart in it as well.
"It's going to be great," Doty said. "Not only for the team, but I think for women's basketball."
2012-13 SEASON PREVIEW
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