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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Butler could make UConn debut tomorrow; Geno on tough scheduling

The hope was that the week and a half between games during the final exam period would enable Natalie Butler and Saniya Chong to get healthy enough to become a part of the UConn playing rotation.

Well, it is sounding a little bit like a good news/bad news proposition.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma met with the media after Sunday's practice and he is hopeful that Butler, a sophomore center yet to play in a game this season due to a thumb injury, could see some time against LSU on Monday night. However, the IT Band Syndrome continues to keep Chong, a junior guard, from practicing on a regular basis and without restriction and it doesn't look like she will be playing against the Tigers.

"Natalie practiced all week but Saniya didn't, she was off and on," Auriemma said. "The other day (Morgan) Tuck and Stewie (Breanna Stewart) and Kia (Nurse) didn't practice so that was a real interesting practice to say the least. Saniya has been off and on. She did some half court stuff, some full-court stuff yesterday but she didn't practice the whole practice. The day before she did some half-court stuff, today I don't think she did anything extensive. I think it is a matter of how she feels. Some days it is good and some days it is not so good."

Chong gives UConn a ball-handling guard off the bench when she is healthy which is something the Huskies don't have at the current time.

"We talk about it a lot with the other coaches that we miss it a ton because there are things she does with the ball that you don't realize and because she hasn't been healthy since the beginning when we started playing games," Auriemma said. "She was unbelievable two days this week. We haven't seen that in so long that we forgot just how explosive she is with the ball. She has pretty done it as much as you can do. It is not the kind of the thing that you say play through it, it is not the type of thing you can play through,  you are either good to go or you can't play."

Butler, who had to sit out all of last season after transferring from Georgetown, has been able to practice but her thumb is still not 100 percent after surgery.

"I think it is more of when she is comfortable catching the ball, that has been the biggest problem," Auriemma said. "She doesn't feel comfortable catching it. The issue with that is when it is your thumb, everything is affected, your whole hand is affected and every time you are playing you get hit on it again and not just with the ball but other stuff. It is not one of those things where she is magically healed, it is something that is going to evolve over a period of time.

"I think it is incredibly frustrating for her because she has waited forever it seems like, not being able to play because you are sitting out that is bad enough as it is and just when you are ready to transition into the next thing, the first day you get hit and you need surgery. Mentally that really screws you up mentally."

Chong's and Butler's teammates are anxious to see them back out on the court.

"I am not a trainer but they are working their way to make sure they are ready to go and they are just as anxious as anybody else to get on the court," Stewart said. "It is tough, it is kid of when Morgan had her knee (issues) or Gabby had the injuries. To have to sit out a whole year and right when you are about to start, get hurt again, that has (an impact) on your mentality but I think she is determined to push through it."

If Auriemma had his way, he would have his team play every team in the top 10 or top 20 every single season. He is close to getting his wish with next year's non-conference schedule with the No. 2-6 teams in the latest Associated Press set to face UConn next season. The newest addition is a home and home with Baylor.

"That is something that we talked about before and the series ended," Auriemma said. "Neal (Eskine, UConn's Senior Associate Director of Athletics) got right on it and it took like five minutes. They were anxious to do it and we were thrilled to do it. We keep adding really good teams to our non-conference schedule. I think the fact that we were from 18 conference games to 16 has really giving us a lot more flexibility and this is partly a result of that."

It is hard not to be struck by the timing of Baylor's enthusiasm about playing UConn as the Huskies will be losing All-Americans Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson to graduation and there's a chance that Morgan Tuck would follow her teammates out the door rather than to take advantage of a fifth season of eligibility.

"There is a line from here to Chicago for people waiting to play us in non-conference games starting next year," Auriemma said with a laugh. "We understand that and I am sure we will take our lumps for a little bit. We played them all before we got Stewie so we might as well play them now.

Most of the games are official with signed contracts. No. 2 South Carolina and No. 3 Notre Dame are not at that point yet but Auriemma believes it is more of a case of when and not if.

"That is just a matter of finding dates," Auriemma said. "I don't think it is a matter of whether we are playing or not, we are just trying to find dates."

While UConn fans are not accustomed to seeing the Huskies lose, it is a realistic possibility that UConn could suffer some losses in its grueling non-conference schedule next season and Auriemma is OK with that.

"We have three All-Americans on our team, I think everybody knows that and we had four last year," Auriemma said. "You don't win as many games as we have won the last couple of years without having that many good players. If we have one returning All-American next year or none, the schedule is going to be brutal and I think it should be. I think our home schedule should be the same way and the road schedule with the really young team that we are going to have is going to be really difficult. We are way past the stage of what our record is. What we are trying to accomplish is to get our team ready to win a national championship. What our record is going into the NCAA tournament is irrelevant, we are way past winning streaks. We have already been there, done that. Playing games that you God forbid might lose shouldn't be 'a don't do that.' There are a lot of schools that schedule not to lose and that is not who we are."

Here is the 2016-17 non-conference schedule with current rankings
No. 2 South Carolina
No. 4 Baylor
No. 5 Texas (at Mohegan Sun Arena)
No. 10 Ohio State
No. 16 DePaul

No. 3 Notre Dame
No. 6 Maryland
No. 11 Florida State
Kansas State

There is one remaining home game expected to be finalized sooner rather than later against a perennial NCAA tournament team. I will hold off revealing the team until it becomes official although it won't be Stanford, Louisville or UCLA. It looks like Louisville and UCLA will be on future UConn schedules. The original thought was that Stanford would return to UConn's schedule next season after a one-year hiatus but that is not happening. Pac-12 teams like UCLA and Cal have proven that they are willing to play the Huskies so if Stanford/UConn doesn't happen in the future, there are options.


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