Commentary

Sophs could be key to UConn's season

Bria Hartley, Stefanie Dolson should help Huskies move on in post-Maya Moore era

Originally Published: November 8, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Stefanie DolsonDavid Butler II/US PresswirePost Stefanie Dolson hopes to expand her shooting range and continue to improve her rebounding.

STORRS, Conn. -- Time does not pass at uniform speed in college sports. Just ask any number of coaches who occupied the visiting bench at Gampel Pavilion during the past four seasons and watched the minutes and seconds tick slowly, agonizingly toward the end of their suffering in routs sparked by Maya Moore.

But rarely are such temporal discrepancies as stark as that between the beginning of a player's freshman and sophomore seasons. One year on the calendar, something close to a lifetime in experience.

"You know what to expect, you know how Coach is, you know how the players are, you know what the expectations are," fourth-year guard Caroline Doty explained of the second time through. "You know what you have to go through now, going through the preseason, to get to the Final Four, where before [the freshmen] were just going off instinct or what we were saying. It's really hard to go based off what somebody says, without experiencing it yourself."

[+] EnlargeBria Hartley
David Butler II/US PresswireBria Hartley was the Big East Rookie of the Year, and coach Geno Auriemma said, "Coming in this year, I think she's been one of the hardest workers."

Connecticut's season might nonetheless turn on whether ignorance was bliss for sophomores Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson.

A changing of the guard (or forward or center) is not exactly a new phenomenon in Storrs, where Rebecca Lobo, Nykesha Sales, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and other stars have come and gone during coach Geno Auriemma's tenure, but it's going to take some time to get used to the sight of the Huskies without Moore. Her presence was both measurable, as in becoming the first three-time Wade Trophy winner in NCAA history or scoring 30 percent of her team's points last season, and immeasurable in ways too numerous to count.

As fitting an ending to her career as a third national championship would have been, the sight of her staging a one-woman comeback both furious and futile in the final minutes of a semifinal loss against Notre Dame was in some ways no less apt. She carried a team as far as she could. And despite contributing to 36 wins last season, it's that image the returnees now find themselves measured against.

All of which means one thing that won't change this season is Connecticut players answering a lot of questions about Moore.

"Connecticut always has that big target on its back," junior Kelly Faris said in response to another one. "But I think we may have a little bit of a different target for the fact that people are going to say, 'Can they do it without Maya? How are they going to do without Maya? Maya, Maya, Maya.' … Looking back at last season, all of us know that she bailed us out almost every game. So we've known coming into this season that it's going to be a completely different type of game. We're all going to have to get involved, we're all going to have to try to score, we all just can't stand around.

"That's what killed us in the end [last season]; we just kind of stood there and said, 'Here, Maya, bail us out.'"

The task of replacing Moore doesn't fall on the shoulders of any one player. Partly because she's new and partly because she wears No. 23 and bears more than a passing resemblance to Moore when viewed from a distance on the court, freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis will be the subject of much Maya-related scrutiny. Mosqueda-Lewis was the No. 1 overall recruit in this year's freshman class according to ESPN HoopGurlz and the winner of just about every meaningful national player of the year award as a senior at Mater Dei High School in California.

Looking back at last season, all of us know that [Maya Moore] bailed us out almost every game. So we've known coming into this season that it's going to be a completely different type of game. We're all going to have to get involved, we're all going to have to try to score, we all just can't stand around.

-- Connecticut's Kelly Faris

But as tempting as it is to make the comparisons, and as much as people in Storrs get a familiar glint in their eye talking about Mosqueda-Lewis' shooting touch, Moore's freshman superstardom was an outlier.

"The kid wants to be great; she has that in common with Maya," Auriemma said of Mosqueda-Lewis. "She wants to be great. And she shoots it as well, if not better than Maya. But to expect her to be all those other things, I think that's asking too much."

Senior Tiffany Hayes, the team's leading returning scorer, will also get ample opportunity to show she's more than a sidekick and a player with the all-around offensive game worthy of the accolades that come her way. Already among the team leaders in every category other than points, ranking second to Moore in assists, rebounds and steals last season, Faris will presumably play a larger role on the scoreboard. And Doty, if she's able to stay healthy after a string of knee injuries bordering on territory previously occupied by former star and current assistant coach Shea Ralph and few others, might be the most valuable player on the roster because of the void her combination of playmaking, shooting and confidence could fill.

But if the juniors and seniors are largely known quantities and there is a limit as to what can be reasonably expected of Mosqueda-Lewis and the rest of a freshman class that includes post presence Kiah Stokes and gifted scoring guard Brianna Banks, the difference between a very good season and one that ends at the Final Four in Denver is whether or not Hartley and Dolson can translate their freshman potential into sophomore success.

At Connecticut's media day earlier this fall, Auriemma was asked about Hartley playing off the ball in practice after she played mostly point guard as a freshman for a team that was without an injured Doty.

"She played off the ball, all right," Auriemma quipped of her practice performance. "She played the ball off people's heads, she played it off the corner pocket, she played it off everywhere."

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore
David Butler II/US PresswireLife after Maya Moore means finding a way to replace the 30 percent of UConn's offense she accounted for last season.

Such is life in Storrs for guards under Auriemma's watch. The Big East's freshman of the year, Hartley made a fantastic first impression by hitting big shots down the stretch in an early win against Baylor. For the season, she shot 39 percent from the 3-point line, finished third on the team in scoring and had more assists than turnovers. It was a successful debut by almost any measure, but what she heard from Auriemma was that she was a "sometimes" player -- sometimes she worked hard and so sometimes she got results.

After a summer spent playing on Team USA for Jen Rizzotti, someone who knows her way around both coaching guards and playing the position for Auriemma, Hartley returned this fall with a new commitment to getting to the basket and what Faris described as a more "receptive and open" approach in general. If that carries over, talent certainly isn't an impediment to All-America honors.

"I think I take criticism," Hartley said. "I really take pride in what I do on the court, so whatever Coach says -- I have the greatest respect for Coach and everything he says. He's been coaching forever, so anything he says, I make sure I listen, make sure I try and change it if it's something I need to get better at.

"I just want to be a great player, and he's created a lot of great players here at Connecticut."

Exactly what role she plays in the backcourt depends on how quickly Banks, herself not a natural point guard, gets up to speed; what role Doty is able to play; and what kind of playmaking duties Faris fields. But it's worth noting that after being named the Big East's top freshman in the 2005-06 season, Renee Montgomery, a player to whom Auriemma compared Hartley as a manufactured point guard, increased her scoring output by nearly 50 percent to lead the team.

"Coming in this year, I think she's been one of the hardest workers, consistently hard workers," Auriemma noted of Hartley.

The inside half of last season's inside-outside freshman duo, Dolson played alongside Hartley for Team USA in the FIBA Under-19 World Championship. She came on strong down the stretch of her freshman season and averaged 13.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 30.6 minutes per game over her final 16 games.

"Definitely expanding my game than just being a low-post presence," Dolson said of her summer focus. "[The post] is definitely going to be the biggest thing still, but being able to step out to the 15-foot, 3-point line and just helping the team out up there, too. And rebounding is always going to be a big thing I'm going to be working on because I'm not the greatest at it."

The season after Taurasi departed, Connecticut turned to an ensemble cast, lost eight games and exited the NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16 -- a successful season most places but the only time since 1992-93 that one of Auriemma's teams lost more than five games and one of just two times in that span in which it didn't reach a regional final. This ensemble cast is better, although it does share a cast of championship veterans (Ann Strother, Barbara Turner and Jessica Moore, among others in 2004-05) and a California prep scoring phenomenon (Charde Houston in 2004-05) in common with that team.

Where this team could find an identity is in two sophomores with the talent to be among the best players in the nation. They don't need to be Maya, but they can be that.

"I think every year your role becomes different; you take on more responsibility," Hartley said. "I think we both know we're going to have more responsibility this year. Last year, it's kind of like we're trying to figure things out, we're freshmen, we're new and we mostly think about ourselves. Now we're one year older, we've got to try to think about what we're doing but also think about what our teammates are doing, as well."

For better or worse, they know what they're in for.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.