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Biggest questions to be answered in Thursday’s UConn-Baylor showdown

One of the marquee events in the women’s college basketball regular season will take place at the XL Center in Hartford on Thursday night, as the top-ranked UConn Huskies host the defending national champion Baylor Lady Bears (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) in a meeting of two of the game’s true brand names.

What should we expect? ESPN.com’s team of experts weighed in on what’s to come:

UConn has risen from No. 5 in the preseason AP poll to a very familiar place at No. 1, yet whether this is one of Geno Auriemma’s signature teams is a subject open for debate. Entering Thursday’s meeting with Baylor, what’s the biggest question you still have about UConn?

Mechelle Voepel: What happens when the Huskies face a team that really can challenge them defensively? That hasn’t really happened yet, but it could against Baylor. Lauren Cox is still getting in game shape, so the Lady Bears aren’t quite as intimidating defensively as they will be when she’s closer to 100 percent. But they’re still pretty good. Baylor has held opponents to an average of 48.1 points per game, and a 30.1 average shooting percentage.

Baylor hasn’t played the toughest of schedules, but the Lady Bears can take away things from UConn that most other teams can’t. Last year Baylor held UConn to 29.4% shooting in a 68-57 victory in Waco, Texas. After that game, UConn coach Geno Auriemma talked about, “how hard it was for us to get the shots we wanted. And when we did get the shots we wanted, we didn’t make any of them.”

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Graham Hays: Are the Huskies the team to beat or merely one of several teams that could win it all? There are tangible indications — assist-to-turnover ratio, free throw attempts and field goal shooting among them — that UConn is a half-step off the admittedly daunting pace set by the teams that claimed the No. 1 ranking like a birthright. So while this is still clearly among the best teams in college basketball, it still feels more like the teams that followed Diana Taurasi and preceded Tina Charles and Maya Moore. One contender among several.

D’Arcy Maine: The Huskies struggled in the early minutes against Wichita State last week, missing their first six shots and trailing 10-1 before going on a 27-2 run. But even when it looked like UConn had all but sealed the victory, Wichita State managed to get back within 10 in the fourth quarter behind 11 unanswered points, just as other opponents this season (notably Ohio State and DePaul) have done late in the game. While the Huskies ultimately beat the Shockers by 28 points, one has to wonder how the team would respond in a similar scenario against a team as good as Baylor.

Can UConn find the physical and mental fortitude to erase an early deficit against the defending national champions? And if the Huskies hold a lead later in the game, can they maintain it?

Charlie Creme: Depth has always been the easy answer when trying to pinpoint a potential UConn weakness, even dating back to the days of complete Huskies dominance. That’s not really the case this season as reserves Aubrey Griffin (16.0 MPG) and Anna Makurat (21.2 MPG) are providing solid minutes. Defensive depth, however, could be a concern. Can the Huskies guard all five positions on the floor against the other best teams in the country? Are they athletic and physical enough from players 1-7 to sufficiently contain teams like Baylor, South Carolina and Oregon? Thursday night will provide the first of those answers.

All-American Lauren Cox returned to the Baylor lineup in late December after missing eight games with a foot injury. If Baylor is going to win in Hartford, what will Cox’s stat line look like?

Hays: Minutes played is the most important category. It’s certainly a bonus if Cox fills the box score in her third game back — and Baylor will likely struggle if she misses 12 of 17 shots, as she did in working off some rust against Oklahoma last week. But if she stays on the court for 30 minutes, makes life difficult for Olivia Nelson-Ododa and helps a team with the fifth-best rebound margin in the nation neutralize a team with the 13th-best margin, it’s enough for now.

Baylor senior Lauren Cox missed eight games over seven weeks with a stress reaction in her right foot. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Creme: This falls into the category of advanced metrics, but I’m not only curious as to how much Cox plays — if it exceeds the 34 minutes she saw against Oklahoma on Saturday — but what her individual time of possession might be. In other words, how much of Baylor’s offense is going to run through Cox?

When healthy and in full basketball shape, Cox should be the focal point of the Lady Bears’ offense even if she isn’t always their top scorer. Does that start against the Huskies on Thursday? If it does, something even more than the four assists she had in last year’s matchup could be part of the box score.

Maine: As Baylor coach Kim Mulkey so perfectly said prior to Cox’s return last month, “Lauren can play on one leg and be out of shape and be better than a majority of the people in the country.” So even in just her third game back, Cox is going to have a major impact on this game. While she won’t play the full 40 minutes like she did during last year’s meeting, don’t be surprised if Cox improves on her season averages (12 PPG, 8 RPG) because of her ability to step up when her team needs her the most.

Voepel: Cox’s biggest impact might not be readily apparent in her stat line: how well she’s able to defend. When healthy, she’s one of the best defenders in the country, both inside with her 6-4 size, and on the perimeter with how she can cut off guards’ options with her length. If she can defend reasonably well in the minutes she’s in, plus get around 10 points and eight rebounds, that should be a big aid to Baylor.

The last time these teams met, Baylor ended UConn’s 126-game regular-season winning streak. What do you think the most significant change has been for either of these two teams since Baylor’s 68-57 win in Waco on Jan. 3, 2019?

Maine: Is it too obvious to say Baylor winning a national championship? While there was a never doubt last season that Baylor was a good team, there is a significant mental shift between being a strong contender to being the best team at the end of the season, and all the confidence and validation that comes with that. Not to mention the intimidation factor when playing opponents.

Sophomore Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who played just four minutes when Baylor and UConn last met, is averaging 13.0 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.5 blocks for the Huskies. AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Voepel: Both teams lost two starters to the WNBA, so that’s a lot of talent that won’t be on the floor. Of the players on both sides returning, Cox was the highest among our espnW preseason ranking of the top 25 players at No. 2. But again, she’s just working her way back. The positive of that is that other Lady Bears had to step forward with Cox injured and Kalani Brown and Chloe Jackson gone.

Sophomore posts NaLyssa Smith (15.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG) and Queen Egbo (13.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG) have done that, and it will be interesting to see how well they play against UConn. We’ve also seen a big step forward from Megan Walker (21 PPG, 9.4 RPG), as she’s now comfortable as UConn’s go-to player.

Hays: The change in institutional memory. The UConn team that put that winning streak on the line had players with championship experience. Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were accustomed to the burden of expectations. Win or lose, as they did that day and again against Notre Dame in the Final Four, they weren’t going to caught off guard. Now many of the Baylor players have that experience and the UConn players are the ones who have to take it on faith.

Creme: Crystal Dangerfield is the only UConn regular who is even remotely the same caliber now as she was 12 months ago.

Megan Walker, Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Kyla Irwin are much better players. The improvements in Walker and Nelson-Ododa, in particular, have been fascinating to see. A year ago Walker was a reluctant No. 4 option. Now she’s a confident and bona fide go-to player. The 6-foot-5 Nelson-Ododa played four minutes in the last meeting, despite Baylor’s inside dominance. Today she’s playing like an All-American (13 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 29.4 MPG).

Give us your score prediction for Baylor-UConn, and a sentence on how you see the game playing out.

Voepel: Baylor 76, UConn 72. A lot rests on the Lady Bears doing a good job defending Walker, Baylor guard Te’a Cooper playing a strong game at point guard and Baylor keeping UConn from too many second-chance points.

Hays: Baylor 68, UConn 64. Neither team has faced much elite competition yet, so this one could be sloppy as each adjusts to a different level of competition.

Maine: Ugh, do I have to? This game really could go either way, so I’ll probably have a different prediction in 10 minutes. For now I’ll go with UConn 70, Baylor 63. It should be a close one, with several lead changes throughout, but a lively home crowd will help the Huskies hold on in Hartford.

Creme: UConn 72, Baylor 64. The Lady Bears won last year’s game with a physical dominance that they don’t quite have at the same level this time around. Look for Nelson-Ododa’s effectiveness around the basket, and Dangerfield winning the point guard matchup ever so slightly over Cooper, as the differences.

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