- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Sometimes a quartet is plenty. Four was the perfect number of Beatles. A compass with five points would lead a lot of people astray. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Plenty.
It's a trickier number to make work on a basketball court built for five.
With news that Connecticut junior All-American forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis will miss three to six weeks as a result of mononucleosis -- the long end of her estimated absence butting up against the Sweet 16 and leaving seemingly little time for any athlete to round back into game form -- the No. 1 team is down to seven scholarship players and four core contributors.
Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley, Moriah Jefferson and Breanna Stewart.
The Huskies need enough minutes from Brianna Banks (assuming she returns from her own injury), Saniya Chong and Kiah Stokes to fill out the 200 minutes available to a team in a regulation game. All are capable; Stokes, for example, is third on the team in rebounding and the runaway leader in rebounds per minute. But this team's championship aspirations will rise or fall with that quartet.
Connecticut appeared to dodge serious trouble a week ago against Louisville when Mosqueda-Lewis returned after she initially left the court with a left elbow injury suffered in nearly the same spot inside Gampel Pavilion at which she tumbled to the court with a right elbow injury against Stanford. Instead, the injury we can't see will leave Geno Auriemma's team more short-handed than it already was without Morgan Tuck. In light of the elbow scare, he was asked after the Louisville game how close his team was to a dangerous personnel situation.
"We've been there since Morgan Tuck had her surgery," Auriemma said. "We've been there, I think, right from that day. Right when that decision was made that put us in a really tough spot because now all you need is one more. ... We're there. Short of playing with four players, I mean, there's nothing else that would need to happen to put us in that danger zone where we just can't afford it.
"We can't afford a sprained ankle, we can't afford three fouls in the first half, we can't afford somebody getting the flu at the right time. Everything has to go right from here on in."
Days later came the news about Mosqueda-Lewis. No team can take an All-American, one of the best pure shooters in the game, out of the lineup and not suffer for it. Not Connecticut, not any team. She has an extensive résumé, but if you want the abbreviated version, just look at her performance against Duke this season. In her first game back from an elbow injury, she hit seven 3-pointers.
And yet when looking at the numbers in areas directly affected by her absence, it's difficult to come to any conclusion but that Connecticut remains entrenched as the favorite to win another title.
• Foul trouble: Connecticut's small roster, numerically speaking, looked an ill fit from the outset for the new emphasis on freedom of movement that has turned some games across the country into strolls between free throw lines. And there were times early when the Huskies ran into trouble, as when Dolson picked up her third foul with nearly three minutes to play in the first half at Penn State or Stewart picked up two fouls in the first four minutes against Stanford. But Connecticut has played 25 games and has yet to see one of its players foul out.
In fact, when Dolson, Hartley and Stewart all picked up four fouls in a physical game against Louisville, they represented a quarter of the instances in which a Connecticut player accumulated even that many fouls in a game.
Freedom of movement aside, the Huskies are actually averaging fewer fouls per game this season than they did en route to a championship a season ago, currently just 12.2 per game (Baylor, Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Stanford all average more than 16 fouls per game). Considering they also force 18.1 turnovers per game and limit opponents to 31 percent shooting, that doesn't seem to have come at the expense of much aggressiveness.
The Huskies are routinely one of the least-penalized teams in the country, a state of affairs that annoys plenty of opposing coaches but which can't be entirely a product of reputation at this point. They reach when they shouldn't. They go for rebounds they have no chance of getting. They challenge shots they can't block. They just don't do those things as often as most teams.
All it takes is one bad night or one referee with a quick whistle to leave the rotation in tatters, but that scenario has been true all season. Even by the standards of a program that generally avoids foul trouble, this particular team has shown itself to be particularly adept at keeping people on the court without playing passively, all the more given the number of big road games the Huskies have played.
• 3-point shooting: By most accounts, even before she was ruled out with the illness, Mosqueda-Lewis was battling a rough stretch of shooting. Yet she was still converting on 42 percent of her attempts from the 3-point line (in addition to 47 percent overall with just 15 turnovers in 451 minutes). So perhaps rough is a relative thing. Still, losing Mosqueda-Lewis a season ago would have been a serious blow to Connecticut's prospects from the 3-point line. She shot 49 percent on such attempts a season ago; the rest of the team shot 33 percent. That last percentage includes 33 percent shooting from Stewart, 30 percent shooting from Hartley and 27 percent shooting from Jefferson.
What a difference a year makes. While Mosqueda-Lewis is the most accurate 3-point shooter this season, the rest of the team is shooting 36 percent, a not insignificant improvement when you're talking about shots worth three points and the already slim margin for error opponents have against Connecticut. And Stewart (40 percent), Hartley (36 percent) and Jefferson (34 percent) are three primary causes of the improvement. As long as Stewart doesn't drift out to the 3-point line at the expense of what she can do below it, there is still offensive balance.
• Rotation: Connecticut has done this before. By the time the NCAA tournament rolled around a season ago, the Huskies essentially used a seven-player rotation, Caroline Doty a starter but limited to spot duty. In the last of Maya Moore's championship seasons, the Huskies used just six players for all but nine minutes in the Final Four. Granted, blowouts in previous rounds that year allowed Auriemma to rest some of those players, but if his team is up 30 points in the early rounds this March, there is no reason he can't play walk-ons Tierney Lawlor and Briana Pulido if rest matters.
It's not just Connecticut. On the way to a perfect season, Baylor's top seven players accounted for all but 25 of the 800 minutes in the final four rounds of the NCAA tournament. Tennessee's top seven accounted for all but 24 minutes in the same span when it won the second of back-to-back titles in 2008. A season earlier, the total was 51 minutes for the Lady Vols.
Postseason rotations routinely extend only two deep on the bench. Connecticut would love for Mosqueda-Lewis to be part of that rotation. The Huskies would be a better team if she was. But even if their own margin for error is now nonexistent, they still have as many functional players available to them as most champions utilize in March and April.
And they still have a quartet that can match up with anybody.
All of which is why Auriemma also noted after the Louisville game that no one was likely to take up collections to ease his team's potential pain. Confirmation of that had come minutes earlier.
"It must just be awful to have to play Stewart 37 minutes," Louisville coach Jeff Walz deadpanned when asked about Connecticut's manpower situation, before anyone knew Mosqueda-Lewis would miss time with mono. "I have no idea how he sleeps at night. I mean, going home tonight and going, 'I had to play Moriah Jefferson 40 minutes and Dolson 39,' I probably wouldn't eat.
"Look who you're playing. It's not like you're out there playing two walk-ons."
16dBonnie D. Ford