At first glance the UConn women's basketball juggernaut would appear to be in dire straits. Not only did the Huskies lose both the national player of the year, center Kara Wolters (to graduation), and the national freshman of the year, guard-forward Shea Ralph (to a knee injury), but they also began practice without their best player, All-America guard-forward Nykesha Sales, who is out indefinitely with mononucleosis (though she is back at practice). Adding to coach Geno Auriemma's travails is the fact that the Huskies will start the year without a dominant seasoned post player for the first time since Rebecca Lobo's sophomore season, 1992-93. "I feel a different kind of anxiousness," he says. "This is the first time in a while I'm not sure what type of team we have. I wonder, What are we going to do when all hell breaks loose and we can't just throw the ball down in the post?"
Auriemma has gotten spoiled, what with the potent presence of the 6'4" Lobo and the 6'7" Wolters over the last five years. The Huskies now are forced to turn to 6'5" sophomore Paige Sauer, who had 6.1 points and 4.2 rebounds a game last season as Wolters's understudy. "Last year we just fed it inside," Sauer says. "Now we're more of a finesse team. I just want to play my role and be consistent. Nothing special."
She'll only have that luxury if Sales fully recovers from mono and can better her numbers of a year ago, when she averaged 16.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.2 steals and 3.3 assists. If she does, the 6-foot Sales could become the fourth straight Husky to be named national player of the year, following Lobo, Jennifer Rizzotti and Wolters. "Her game has evolved each year," Auriemma says of Sales, who played on the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the World University Games in Sicily this summer. "It's been incredible to watch her. She can do so many things and score in so many different ways."
Sales's talents helped UConn run off 33 consecutive wins last season as the Huskies advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to eventual champ Tennessee. Auriemma likes this year's team, but UConn's shot at winning its second title in three years might have snapped at the same time the anterior cruciate ligament in Ralph's right knee did, during a pickup game in August. It was a heartbreaking blow for Ralph, who had torn the same ACL in Connecticut's first-round NCAA tournament win over Lehigh last March but had worked her way back in time for preseason practice.
With Ralph redshirting, the Huskies will look to other players for help, among them senior point guard Rita Williams (7.2 points, 3.3 assists a game last season), 5'11" junior guard-forward Amy Duran (7.4 points) and freshman forward Svetlana Abrosimova, who's from St. Petersburg, Russia, and was MVP of the 1996 European Championships. "We've got to come up with different ways to score," says Auriemma. "We're going to be very versatile this year. We'll have to be."