Two seasons have passed without the UConn women's basketball team winning the national championship. Given that the Huskies were the champions in 1995, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010, this stretch is not one that UConn fans like to see and is one that women's basketball is not used to.
In the past two seasons, UConn has still reached the Final Four, which it has done 13 times under Head Coach Geno Auriemma. But in each of these seasons, it failed to make the final, losing to Notre Dame both times.
Now the Huskies are back and ready for another run at their eighth title, a run which should not prove futile as they are without doubt the team to beat in 2012-13.
There is no such thing as rebuilding at UConn. There is only reloading. That is why the loss of Tiffany Hayes is one that can be coped with, especially considering the firepower that Auriemma has brought into the program for this season.
It is likely that this year's recruiting class is the strongest in the history of women's college basketball - and it is only three players deep. The biggest capture in the class is Breanna Stewart, a 6-foot-3 forward who ranks as the top recruit in the nation, according to ESPNU HoopGurlz. Stewart comes to UConn from deep in enemy territory, Syracuse, N.Y., where the Syracuse Orange boast the No. 6 class in the country.
Joining Stewart in Storrs is point guard Moriah Jefferson, the No. 2 recruit in the nation, and forward Morgan Tuck, the No. 6 recruit.
These three freshmen may not be the go-to stars right off the bat, but they will be very important to the Huskies this year. Looking well into the future, Breanna Stewart may be the most important player on either team in a Feb. 18 battle between UConn and its biggest non-conference rival, Baylor. Each of the past two seasons, Baylor center Brittney Griner has forced Huskies junior center Stefanie Dolson into early foul trouble, leaving redshirt senior Heather Buck or sophomore Kiah Stokes, who struggled at times in her freshman year, to defend the nation's top player without getting into trouble themselves. Having Stewart on the team to fill in depth in the front court for the Huskies will be a big relief for Auriemma, in case a situation such as that were to occur.
No doubt Tiffany Hayes will be missed. Few players in recent memory were as reliable with the ball in their hands at any given moment and few could run the floor like she does. There are even fewer players who had her drive. Hayes was knocked to the floor and stayed down hurt at least once a game. But she would get up, maybe take a 30-second break and then get right back on the floor. That kind of player is hard to replace. Luckily for Auriemma, he has an advantage that other coaches do not. He has the most talent and the most determined players in the nation.
The Huskies return four starters: Dolson, senior guards Caroline Doty and Kelly Faris and junior guard Bria Hartley. There is no doubt that Hayes' will be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who has quickly drawn comparisons to UConn legend Maya Moore.
Mosqueda-Lewis is destined to become a star, assuming she is not one already, and could be a big factor in a UConn run this season. It is hard to remember a freshman having such an unbelievable list of statistics and accolades from their first season. But Mosqueda-Lewis reaped the benefits of her play. She was named to the Big East All-Rookie Team and All-Big East Second Team. She was also named the Big East Freshman and Sixth Man of the Year. During the conference tournament, she was named to the All-Tournament Team and won Most Outstanding Player as she helped UConn past Notre Dame for the title.
Mosqueda-Lewis played in all 38 games, starting only once but averaging 28.2 minutes per game. Through the season, she averaged 15 points while shooting 43 percent from the field (38 percent from 3-point range). It is scary to think that she accomplished all she did as merely a freshman. It is plausible that by the end of the 2012-13 season, we are talking about her competing with the likes of Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and Griner for National Player of the Year.
Looking to the bench, Auriemma normally plays, at most, eight players deep. In the Final Four match-up with Notre Dame, only Mosqueda-Lewis and Stokes came in off the bench. With Doty now having played an entire season of healthy basketball after suffering through her multiple ACL surgeries, she will likely not need as much time on the bench. After missing the 2010-11 season, she averaged a career-low 20.6 minutes per game despite starting all 37 games she appeared in.
Jefferson should get regular time as a sixth man. With UConn's traditionally small lineup, which will likely feature three guards, she should expect to see plenty of time during the season. Stewart, Stokes and Buck provide depth at forward, but how often they are used depends on Dolson's foul count and the style of play the opponent throws at the Huskies.
UConn is built for any situation, any scheme that an opponent could possibly hope to throw its way. There is enough talent and depth on this team for them to potentially run the table. But it is hard to imagine that happening with such an array of talent in their schedule. The Huskies schedule presents them with 10 opponents who finished ranked in the final Top 25 poll of the 2011-12 season, including five teams from inside the top 10.
Unlike in the men's game, where teams play mostly cupcake warmups until conference play begins, UConn will test itself early. The second game of the season is a trip to College Station, Texas to play Texas A&M, the 2011 national champions and the No. 12 team in the country at the end of last year. The Huskies must also play at Stanford and Oregon as well as in neutral site games against Purdue and Marist before opening the conference season.
This is a much more experienced team than the Huskies have had in recent years. It has had a taste of success and has seen it snapped away in a heartbeat. They are hungry and tired of getting oh so close and yet have had a national championship elude them each of the past two seasons. The current juniors, Dolson and Hartley, are the first class to not win a national title in one of its first two seasons since the class consisting of Tina Charles, Jacquie Fernandes, Meghan Gardler, Kalana Greene and Kaili McLaren failed to do so during the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.
That class then won two straight.
The 2012-13 Huskies are talented, experienced and very deep for a team that does not often play more than seven players in a game. They are built to play any scheme the best teams in the nation can throw at them.
They will play the best early and often this season. There may be some bumps along the way. But do not be surprised if on April 2, 2013, the UConn Huskies are celebrating on the floor at the New Orleans Arena as the eight-time champions of women's basketball.