STORRS — Aside from the inevitable personnel changes, there is something else that distinguishes this UConn team from the one that won the national championship last season.
These Huskies enter the NCAA Tournament reasonably healthy. That wasn't the case last March.
"We're not too bad at this point with anyone needing to be in and out of practice," Bria Hartley said. "When that happens, it's very hard to deal with."
After a regular season burdened by injuries and illness that ended Morgan Tuck's season in January and cost Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis 12 games, No. 1 UConn (34-0) begins its chase of a ninth national championship as healthy as anyone could expect.
The only apparent issues are Stefanie Dolson's head cold and whatever pain lingers in the feet and ankles of guards Moriah Jefferson and Brianna Banks.
Coach Geno Auriemma said Monday that Dolson, his All-American center, did not practice last week after becoming ill during the American Athletic Conference tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena.
"Everyone is fine, with the exception of Stefanie, who came down with something that's been going on around campus," Auriemma said. "She might have even had it during the AAC tournament, and it kind of knocked her out on Tuesday. Other than that, we have no issues, everyone is fine."
Last season's NCAA Tournament sprint was much more complicated. Dolson had issues with stress fractures and plantar fasciitis. And Kelly Faris dealt with a severe ankle injury sustained in the triple-overtime regular season finale at Notre Dame.
Those injuries required rest and therapy when the team was not playing, something that complicated whatever practice plans Auriemma and his staff had. But now the process is more routine.
"We gave them a bunch of days off [after the AAC championship game on March 10]," Auriemma said. "Spring break started. We were just trying to find out who we'd be playing, where and when."
"Stefanie hasn't practiced since the Louisville game [AAC championship] and that kind of changed practice. But other than that, we've been doing pretty much what we do all the time at this time of year, trying to keep our legs under us, maintain our conditioning, work on some things we need to work on."
Auriemma said he planned to hold practices Tuesday and Wednesday and give the team Thursday off. On Friday he will work toward Sunday's first-round game against No. 16 Prairie View at Gampel Pavilion at 8 p.m.
"It's like a sprint [to the finish] from Sunday," Auriemma said.
Jefferson, UConn's ignition switch at the point, has been dealing with a cranky ankle for the past month, mostly by wearing a walking boot when she's not wearing a sneaker. Still, it has not affected her minutes or performance since being limited to 16 minutes on Feb. 19 against Central Florida.
But just in case, Auriemma wants to make sure that Banks, a junior, and Saniya Chong, the freshman, pick up the pace before Sunday's tip. Both have played inconsistently of late.
"They have looked better," Auriemma said. "That's basically what we wanted, for them to be better. They have both made some progress since [the Louisville game] and I hope it carries over."
Jefferson: Lieberman Finalist
Jefferson is a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, the Basketball Hall of Fame announced Wednesday. Jefferson is the youngest of the five finalists. The winner will be announced at the Final Four in April. Jefferson started each of UConn's 34 games and led the AAC in field goal percentage (57.7 percent), assists (5.0), and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.9), and was second in steals (2.6). She was selected to the all-AAC first team.
Other finalists are Odyssey Sims of Baylor, Jerica Coley of Florida International University, Brittany Boyd of California and Heather Butler of Tennessee-Martin.
Auriemma: Naismith Finalist
Auriemma is a finalist for the Naismith Women's College Coach of the Year Award. Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, North Carolina State's Wes Moore and South Carolina's Dawn Staley join Auriemma.
Auriemma is a five-time WBCA national coach of the year and has won the AP coach of the year award seven times. He is the AAC coach of the year and has been selected as the conference coach of the year 11 times.