HARTFORD -- UConn is not the biggest women's basketball team in the country. Far from it, actually. Its de facto center, Napheesa Collier, is 6-foot-1. Stretch 4 Megan Walker is the same height. The Huskies' tallest starter is Katie Lou Samuelson at 6-foot-3, but she doesn't have the strength to be a prototypical post player.
It's certainly a big weakness, and if UConn hopes to claim its 12th national title this season, the Huskies might need some luck of the draw. Head coach Geno Auriemma admitted as much.
"There's some teams we're going to play that if they're on their 'A' game, we couldn't beat them in a million years. But we could get lucky," he said prior to Wednesday's 102-45 win over Memphis.
On top of catching a team on a possible off-night, if they play a team with a big center such as Baylor's Kalani Brown or Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan, they're going to need Olivia Nelson-Ododa to step up.
At 6-foot-4, Nelson-Ododa is the Huskies' tallest player. Not only is she have height, but she has long arms to grab rebounds and block shots. She gives other teams a look on both ends of the court that nobody else on UConn can.
But there's one issue: Nelson-Ododa is only a freshman and has dealt with the struggles and inconsistencies that come during a player's first year in college.
Back in December, Auriemma was forced to use Nelson-Ododa against then-No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend when Collier got it foul trouble. Nelson-Ododa not only held her own, but excelled in a big spot with a five-point, five-rebound game capped off by a thunderous block of Marina Mabrey.
From there, she followed up with her first double-double at Saint Louis with 12 points and 10 boards before scoring 13 points against Seton Hall. It was a three-game stretch in which she averaged 10 points and 6.0 rebounds in 15 minutes per game.
But as quickly as that success came, it vanished. Over her next seven games, Nelson-Ododa disappeared, playing fewer than nine minutes in every game and attempting just two field goals over that entire span. She never eclipsed more than five rebounds in a game and only totaled one offensive board. Samuelson thought Nelson-Ododa was overwhelmed on the court.
"There were times she would come into the game and you couldn't say much to her because you could tell she was just thinking thinking, thinking, kind of freaking out a little bit," Samuelson said.
As the season moved along, Nelson-Ododa has started to settle in. It began with a seven-point, seven-rebound performance against Temple. Since, she's played over 10 minutes in all but one game and has emerged as a force on the defensive end, blocking 18 shots.
"She helps a ton with defense and making the other team think twice about driving the lane because we have someone in there," Samuelson said. "We do struggle one on one defensively sometimes and with (Nelson-Ododa in), that can be a huge key for us."
In Wednesday's blowout victory, Nelson-Ododa racked up 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. But arguably the most impressive part of her statline was her 5-for-7 shooting performance. Despite her long arms, Nelson-Ododa has struggled to finish at the rim throughout her freshman campaign. She entered Wednesday night making just .465 percent of her shots, most of which don't come outside the paint.
In her first 21 games, she made at least 50 percent of her shots just six times. But in her last five contests, Nelson-Ododa has made over half her shots four times. She attributes the change to a better understanding of what she's supposed to do in the offense.
"As I get a better understanding of what I'm supposed to do, my confidence increases. It goes hand in hand," she said. "I get a better understanding of what I'm supposed to do when I watch film, work on the things I need to perfect and improve getting ready for March."
Once March comes around, Nelson-Ododa won't have the luxury of playing against the weak level of competition the American Athletic Conference presents. Instead, she'll be going up against some of the best bigs in the country. Despite that, Collier believes she'll be ready for them.
"I think she's capable of doing that," Collier said. "It's just building confidence and her knowing she can do it. This is a really good stepping stone from here and she's going to keep getting better from here."