By PAT EATON-ROBB
STORRS, Conn. — Connecticut is used to dealing with the pressure that comes from consistent success.
But with eight players returning from a 35-4 team that won the program’s eighth national championship in April, the great expectations for this season have exceeded proportions.
UConn is a prohibitive favorite not only to win a ninth title, but to win every game they play — and by a wide margin.
“When you are at Connecticut, you always have the goal of winning a national championship,” senior center Stefanie Dolson said. “So for us, the goal is to go undefeated. For other people to think that, it doesn’t faze us, because we expect to win every time we step onto the court.”
The scariest part for opponents may be that there is clearly room for UConn to improve.
Senior point guard Bria Hartley suffered through last year with a lingering ankle injury that resulted in her least productive season as a Husky. She says she is healthy again.
“I’ve never had to face anything like that before; not playing and being so inconsistent when I did,” Hartley said. “It helped me grow and mature as a person.”
Sophomore Breanna Stewart, named the Final Four’s most outstanding player, acknowledges she slumped in the middle of last season, and should have averaged more than 14 points and six rebounds.
“Freshman year, I was testing the waters a bit,” said Stewart, who was named the preseason player of the year in the new American Athletic Conference. “But after winning and having such a great summer, I feel there is more of a leadership role for me. Personally, I just want to be more consistent, throughout the whole season.”
Kalena Mosqueda-Lewis, the team’s leading scorer each of the past two seasons, also is back.
“We’ll see if this team is capable of handling (the expectations) or not,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “We’ll see if they are mature enough to deal with all the things that are going to be thrown at them. We, generally as a basketball program, don’t put a lot of stock in what other people think or what other people say.
“And I don’t think you get extra points for margin of victory.”
Here are five things to watch as Connecticut seeks a ninth national title:
NATIONAL EXPOSURE: Mosqueda-Lewis, Stewart and Dolson were among six college players who joined Auriemma this summer in Las Vegas to practice with the U.S. national team. Hartley was invited but stayed home to rest her ankle. Hartley and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis also helped the U.S. to a gold medal at the World University Games.
All four also have been named to the list of just 25 players on a preseason watch list for the Wade Trophy.
NEW CONFERENCE: Connecticut is now part of the American Athletic Conference, which means fewer battles with traditional rivals and a somewhat weaker conference schedule.
“It will be weird that we’re not playing Notre Dame, like, four times in one year,” Dolson said.
Louisville, the team UConn beat in last season’s national title game, is expected to provide the biggest competition. SMU, South Florida and Rutgers also come into the new conference off winning seasons. The Huskies have loaded up their non-conference schedule with games against top teams including Stanford, Baylor, Duke, Cal, Ohio State, Maryland and Penn State.
“We just need a team to play against,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “It doesn’t matter who it is.”
CLASS BY HERSELF: Connecticut added just one scholarship player to the roster this season. Guard Saniya Chong averaged 34 points and nine assists last year in gathering several national high school player of the year awards. She says she’s just looking to fit in at UConn and be a role player this season.
“They welcomed me with open arms right for the start,” she said. “It’s been like one big family. Even though they’ve already won a national championship, and have been together for a long time, me coming here is just going to start a whole new family.”
INJURIES: Hartley isn’t the only Husky returning from injury. Junior guard Brianna Banks is expected to be ready for the season opener against Hartford after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in February. Dolson also spent some of her summer resting a stress fracture in her right ankle and a partial tear of some connective tissue in her left foot.
“Not only was it physically annoying to be walking around in a boot, but it mentally drains you, because you know you can’t work out. You can’t do anything,” she said.
CALL THEM THE BREES: With the addition of walk-on player Briana Pulido, UConn now has four players on the 11-person roster named Bria, or Breanna or Briana. The team refers to Breanna Stewart as “Stewie” and has taken to calling Pulido “Polly” in an attempt to minimize the confusion.