Katie Lou Samuelson and her University of Connecticut women's basketball teammates have had just over six months to think about their loss to Mississippi State in the NCAA Final Four semifinals in Dallas. If the junior All-American had her way, she would have been working and playing days later. She wasn't. The saying is, "Wait till next year," after all.
"One of the biggest things after the way the season ended was that we needed to get back into it and we were able to do that earlier than usual because of the trip to Italy," Samuelson said. "We're ready to go. This team is ahead of where the others were since I've been here because we've had more time together and we know what we need to get done to get better."
The Huskies open practice officially Thursday with a workout at the Werth Family Champions Center, exactly one month before they begin the regular season against Stanford in the Countdown to Columbus at Nationwide Arena.
For the first time in five years, they are not the reigning national champion. Their 111-game winning streak now belongs to the record and history books. In fact, the first streak they'll deal with to start the new campaign is avoiding back-to-back losses for the first time in 886 games.
Still with what they have coming back and what they have added, they figure to be ranked the No. 1 team in the country when the preseason polls come out.
"I think that we have a lot to look forward to," UConn junior All-American Napheesa Collier said. UConn returns four starters -- All-Americans Samuelson, Collier, and senior Gabby Williams, along with all-conference performer and four-year starter Kia Nurse.
Samuelson and Collier recently took part in their first United States senior national team camp while Nurse led Team Canada to a gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championship in August. Also back from last season are sophomores Crystal Dangerfield, Molly Bent, and Kyla Irwin. Redshirt junior Azura Stevens and redshirt sophomore Batouly Camara are eligible after sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules. Freshmen Mikayla Coombs, Lexi Gordon, Andra Espinoza-Hunter, and Megan Walker were rated among the top three recruiting classes in the country coming out of high school.
While much of the cast is the same, there is plenty that's different.
"I actually felt most prepared my freshman year because I didn't have to do anything because of the seniors we had then," Samuelson said. "This year I have more responsibility and it's important for me to lead and set a good example. Almost half of our team hasn't played a game at Connecticut before. I'm really looking forward to the challenges that we'll have."
The Huskies did get a head start in August as they took a 10-day tour of Italy that included four exhibition games.
"The trip was so good for us," Collier said. "We got to practice before we left and the games in Italy showed us a lot of things and exposed a lot of things we're going to need to work on. It was a big advantage for us and it's helping us going forward."
UConn finished 3-1 in Italy losing the finale to Slovenian and Adriatic League champion Celje. Coach Geno Auriemma said the basketball portion of the trip was just what he was hoping for.
"We got to see some things that we already assumed," Auriemma said. "We were able to point out to some of our players, 'This is how good we can be and this is how much better some of you need to get if you want to contribute.' We already knew we had four of the best players in the country. Now we wanted to find out how many more than four that we have and how many more than four can we think are going to be solid enough that they're going to enhance these other four.
"People want to talk about, 'How are you going to make sure what happened last year doesn't happen again? How are you going to do that? How are you going to make sure you don't lose a game in overtime in the Final Four? How are you going to make sure you go more than 36-1?' You don't make sure that that doesn't happen. What you try to do is make everyone better. You try to make everyone on your team a little bit better and see what happens."
UConn must replace starting guard Saniya Chong, who graduated and moved on to the WNBA's Dallas Wings. Auriemma has options but a source within the program said that Dangerfield -- who is the first to tell you that she had an up-and-down season as a freshman -- has the inside track on that final starting spot as practice begins. The point guard from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, earned rave reviews for her play this summer with USA Basketball and with the Huskies. Her effort has remained strong in the fall and the source said she's the most improved player on the club.
Stevens at 6-foot-6 and Camara at 6-foot-2 add size, though Stevens is also solid on the perimeter. The freshman class will add depth and many eyes will be on Walker, who swept most of the 2017 national high school Player of the Year honors.
UConn will see where it stands early as it opens with games against Final Four participant Stanford, the Cardinal's Pac-12 archrival California, and Sweet 16 teams Maryland and UCLA. The game against the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion will come just two days after the Huskies face the Terrapins in Hartford.
There will be December games against Notre Dame, DePaul, and Oklahoma. If UConn wins its first eight games, Auriemma will go for his 1,000th career win against the Sooners and coach Sherri Coale at Mohegan Sun Arena Dec. 19. The Huskies' 16-game American Athletic Conference schedule will be broken up by non-league games at Texas, at South Carolina, and home with Louisville.
The 2018 Final Four will be at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
"I'm excited and ready to go," Collier said. "We all are."