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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Season has been a challenging one for UConn's Butler

One of my favorite parts of covering the UConn women's basketball team has little to do with the games being played although there have been some classic matchups with Notre Dame and Tennessee to write about over the years. I love watching Geno Auriemma work in practice. He has a sense of knowing which buttons to push and the more dominant the Huskies look over the course of a season the more difficult he makes things in practice.

Two days before the Temple game was the most recent practice I was allowed to check out. In the final 20-30 minutes, which is the part open to the media, starters Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck, Moriah Jefferson and Kia Nurse stood underneath the basket as did Gabby Williams as the quartet of Courtney Ekmark, Natalie Butler, Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were put through the ringer in a challenging 4 on 4 defensive drills.

Things were not going well and with each passing possession Auriemma began to chirp more and more at the four Huskies. The fatigue was starting to show and that was exactly what Auriemma wanted to happen. If you ask any of UConn's greatest players about the challenges of playing for Auriemma, they will invariably say it is the ability to push through when things are the toughest.

Auriemma did not like what he saw from Natalie Butler. He did not think she was in the proper defensive stance, wasn't getting her hands up on defense like he asked and wanted her to compete harder. Not liking her response when he mentioned that to her, he had Williams replace her in the drill. Auriemma continued to address Butler and the 6-foot-5 sophomore answered back which was not the right move. Butler, to her credit, only let Williams take part in a couple of possessions before she checked herself back into the drill. This time she performed at a much higher level. It was the definition of "pushing through."

"Coach, if he is on me it means he wants to make you better as a player," Butler said. "I think what I have learned is if he stops talking to you, that is a bad thing. If they are pushing you and they are on you, they are very interested and want to continue to make you better. How do you respond to that, how do you step up to the plate. We practice harder than we play in games so it is going to help you in the long run."
The reality is that UConn likely could win a national championship this season regardless of what impact Butler might have. However, with Stewart and Jefferson graduating and there being a pretty good probability that Tuck could also join them as first-round WNBA draft picks in April, Butler's development could go a long way in determining if the Huskies will be a national-championship contender next season.
"You have to realize that every day is an opportunity to get better and next year we are not going to have the three seniors," Butler said. "How do you step up? How do you fill different positions. There is no more hiding on the bench, step up and perform."

Butler's role in the Temple game two days later was a rather limited one. Some of that could be chalked up to the matchup as the Owls play with an undersized lineup similar to what DePaul does and it can be a nightmare for a true low-post player to run all over the court to defend players more comfortable hanging out around the 3-point line than in the paint.

That changed last night. With Auriemma wanting to see more from the Huskies role players, he took stars Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck out of the starting lineup and replaced them with Butler, Collier and Saniya Chong.

While it wasn't always pretty especially when Cincinnati was tied with UConn at 15 when all five were subbed out midway through the first quarter, there were some promising signs.

Collier might have had her most active and well-rounded game in the last few weeks while Butler was a low-post presence on both ends of the floor and more importantly, aggressively pursued rebounds rather than waiting for them to land in her hands.

"I am glad I am finally doing that," Butler said. "I haven't done that in a long time and my freshman year that was my go-to (skill) to go after the ball by moving your feet and playing with heart, I have sort of gotten away from that. I am just getting back to basics, my teammates need me to do it and I want to perform for the seniors and give them a great (end) to the year."
Sometimes tells me Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson will be back in the starting lineup when UConn plays at East Carolina on Saturday but it will be important for players like Butler, Collier and Chong to build on what took place last night. The real test could come in the regular-season finale against USF to see how much playing time they manage to earn.


Anonymous Joe said...

Butler could have a huge impact in the NCAA tourney when UConn plays teams with size inside and if Tuck has foul trouble or a flare-up of her knee issue. Glad to hear she is finally ready to start going after it!

12:48 PM 
Blogger Robaust10 said...

Natalie is not quick enough or explosive enough getting to the ball ... She needs a year working on her body and fast twitch muscles ... Right now I think Heather Buck was a much better player and she never played

10:02 AM 

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