STORRS, Conn. -- The University of Connecticut women's basketball team has been ranked No. 1 in 46 of the last 58 Associated Press polls and not outside the top five since Jan. 26, 2007.
With the three best seniors in the country from a year ago -- Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck now in the WNBA, the returning and new Huskies hope to carry on the tradition of excellence.
That's not the only thing the four-time reigning national champions are carrying.
"We all kind of have a chip on our shoulder," UConn sophomore guard Katie Lou Samuelson said Friday night. "There's been a lot said about how we are going to do without the three of them. People don't think we can do it, and I think everyone wants to prove that we are going to play together as a team, we are going to play the best we can, and we are going to go as far as we possibly can.
"I wouldn't say we're overlooked. I think we're always going to have that target on us. We know that target is on our back and for sure everyone wants to take us down. Everyone, whether they do it themselves or see other teams do it. We know that going into every game, and every practice we want to make sure that we work harder than every other team in the country because that's where it starts."
The Huskies opened practice Wednesday and had a great time at the annual First Night program at packed Gampel Pavilion Friday night. But on Saturday it was back to work at the Champions Center practice facility. UConn will put its 75-game winning streak on the line in the season opener at Florida State in just 30 days.
"Based on the first few days, the players that are back are what I would have hoped they would be," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "All of them in their own way, they all have something that they give every day. But they are generally a quiet group on the floor. There is really no really loud extroverts. There wasn't last year either, but last year they could have played with headphones on and we could have been undefeated and won the national championship.
"This year it is going to be a challenge in so many ways. They are going to have learn to be leaders. They are going to have to learn to be the go-to guys down the stretch. They are going to have to learn that they just can't give us their 20 minutes and go sit down and let the other three do it. They are going to have to be able to go 30 minutes, 35 minutes sometimes, and that is all going to be a different deal for them, one that takes awhile to get used to."
The good news for the Huskies as practice as opened is they are healthy. Samuelson is back from the broken left foot she suffered in the national semifinal game against Oregon State and junior guard Kia Nurse is back after offseason sports hernia surgery cost her much of Team Canada's pre-Olympic training camp. Sophomore forward Napheesa Collier and freshman guard Crystal Dangerfield are back after each had offseason hip surgery and freshman forward Kyla Irwin has recovered from a broken right hand.
The only player being held back is sophomore forward Batouly Camara, who had right shoulder surgery. But she is sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules after leaving Kentucky for UConn.
"Whether or not anybody has made a huge jump, we will know pretty quickly in November," Auriemma said. "But I'm not going to judge this team on what happens in November. The silliest thing we could talk about right now is, 'This team is a definite for the Final Four. This team is a definite for the national championship.' Or, 'At the end of November, we're going to know whether we're good enough to be at the Final Four at the end.' They're not worth talking about.
"We could have a losing record at the end of November and still turn out to be one of the best teams in the country come March. We could win every game in November and fall apart down the stretch because a lot of these guys haven't been in this situation in March. Everything is wait and see. That's the way I look at coaching this year."
After Florida State, the Huskies host Baylor, which is expected to be ranked in the top five in the preseason. They then visit LSU before closing out November with home games against Dayton and Chattanooga. Their seven-game December schedule has them playing games against 2016 NCAA tournament qualifiers DePaul, Texas, Notre Dame, Kansas State, Ohio State and Maryland.
Over the last 10 seasons, UConn is 57-1 in November (the only loss being at Stanford two seasons ago) and 58-2 in December (losses at Stanford in 2010 and at Baylor in 2011).
While waiting for No. 1-ranked high school senior Megan Walker to make her college choice -- she is considering UConn, Notre Dame and Texas -- the Huskies are welcoming some younger talent this weekend.
Charli Collier (6-foot-4 junior forward, Baytown, Texas) took in First Night on Friday. Rated No. 7 in her class by ESPN HoopGurlz and No. 1 by Prospects Nation, Collier released a list of 12 finalists this summer -- UConn, Baylor, Duke, Houston, Louisville, Notre Dame, Ohio State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, UCLA and USC. She is on campus for the first time but took in the Huskies' game at Houston last January.
As a sophomore, Collier averaged 24.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots to lead Barbers Hill High to a 27-8 record and the Texas Class 5A regional semifinals. She reached the 1,000-point plateau. She represented her country for the first time this year, averaging 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 7.7 minutes per game for the United States squad that won the bronze medal at the FIBA U-17 world championships in Zaragoza, Spain, June 22-July 2.
Collier's teammate with the U-17 team, Samantha Brunelle, was expected to arrive on campus Saturday for an unofficial visit and it is also her first time here. The 6-2 sophomore forward from Ruckersville, Virginia, is the consensus No. 1 player in the Class of 2019.
Brunelle averaged 25 points and 17.3 rebounds as a freshman in leading William Monroe High to a 20-6 record and the Conference 28 and district titles. One of four players from the Class of 2019 to be invited to the U-17 trials in Colorado Springs by USA Basketball and the youngest player to make the club, Brunelle averaged 2.0 points and 1.0 rebounds in 4.2 minutes for the bronze-medal winning Americans at the world championships.
Also in attendance at First Night were UConn Class of 2017 commit Andra Espinoza-Hunter (5-foot-11 guard, Ossining, New York), U-17 national team finalist Aliyah Boston (6-foot-3 sophomore forward from Worcester (Massachusetts) Academy, Anaya Peoples (5-foot-10 sophomore guard, Danville, Illinois), and Aubrey Griffin (5-foot-11 sophomore guard, Ossining, New York).