This article is part of our March Madness series.
After the Connecticut women’s basketball team lost Paige Bueckers in December, and the Huskies returned to the court with a lackluster 44-point effort in a loss to an unranked Georgia Tech team, the Twitter obits proliferated. It seemed there was nothing left to do with this UConn team but bury it.
A funny thing, though: The Huskies had a season that virtually any other program would kill for. That Georgia Tech loss came to … an NCAA Tournament team! So did the rest of UConn’s losses, against Villanova, Oregon and eventual No. 1 seeds Louisville and South Carolina.
A team filled with high-level recruits, coached by Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey, was going to find its way. But UConn never really lost it. As Auriemma put it last week, following a 70-40 rout of Villanova that gave the Huskies a dose of revenge and a Big East title:
To be clear, we’re not living in the time of Breanna Stewart at UConn, where anything close to a loss would have been among the rarest of upsets, especially from her sophomore year on. This is a more limited Huskies group compared with, for instance, the 2016 team, which I would argue is the best of all time.1
But two things can be true: This year’s UConn squad is an elite team even without Bueckers, and with Bueckers playing like her freshman self, the Huskies would be dramatically better.
Let’s start with the floor of this team. As mentioned, UConn’s 25-5 record so far includes losses only to NCAA Tournament teams and, if anything, undersells how good it has been this season. The Huskies are ninth in the country in offensive efficiency and 10th in defensive efficiency, for the best margin in the country per 100 possessions. They are second in the country in field-goal percentage, 17th in rebounding rate, ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio and 14th in block percentage. This is not a team with any obvious weaknesses on either side of the ball.
And they did this without their primary point guard for most of the season.
But with Bueckers? Well, the Bueckers of last season adds an element this Huskies team simply didn’t have — few teams anywhere do. Bueckers finished the 2020-21 season with 12.9 win shares, best in the nation. That would rank second among all 2021-22 players, behind Aliyah Boston’s remarkable campaign for South Carolina so far this year, but ahead of both Caitlin Clark seasons.
This deep UConn team has more talent and diversity of attack than the one Bueckers grabbed by the scruff of the neck and pulled to the Final Four last year. If she could perform at 2020-21 levels, she would add to the Huskies a deadly 3-point shooter, an elite finisher at the rim and one of the most opportunistic defenders in the country, with a steal percentage north of 3.
The problem, so far, is that Bueckers since her return has not been the same player. The Huskies have been understandably cautious with her, and her minutes played in her five games back have been 12, 13, 18, 18 and just eight in the Big East title game against Villanova.
“I just think that when Paige doesn’t score, doesn’t shoot, doesn’t get involved in the game, it’s her choice,” Auriemma said after Bueckers scored 16 points against Georgetown in the Big East quarterfinals. “Sometimes I watch her for two, three minutes and I get her out — like, the wrong Paige showed up today, and I need to remind her that we need the other Paige.”
But Bueckers hit a single field goal in each of the two games that followed. The Georgetown win was her high-water mark since returning.
Now, certainly, even a 100 percent Bueckers is no guarantee of a UConn title. Let’s not forget that the Huskies’ 73-57 loss to South Carolina predates the Bueckers injury. She played more than 38 minutes in that one, and the Huskies still managed just 3 points in the final quarter against Dawn Staley’s juggernaut, the top overall seed in this year’s tournament.
Still, that version of the Huskies differed pretty dramatically from the one that will take the floor this Saturday against Mercer in Storrs. Nika Muhl played just 2:39 in that loss before emerging as the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, a two-way threat in the backcourt. Azzi Fudd had yet to establish herself as the virtual 50-40-90 threat she’s become (just missing it at the moment due to an 88.9 free throw percentage), starting all three games in UConn’s Big East tournament routs. Both Caroline Ducharme and Dorka Juhasz have contributed huge scoring performances throughout the season. In the South Carolina game? Juhasz had a lone field goal, while Ducharme didn’t even play.
And yet, the ideal lineup hasn’t gelled yet. The idea with bringing Bueckers back in late February was to allow for a few weeks of ramping up with her leading the charge. It’ll simply have to happen in real time now, with this weekend’s opener against Mercer the last chance for the rotation to work out its kinks in a game UConn can expect to dominate. This is especially true if Central Florida, the No. 7 seed, takes care of business and beats No. 10 seed Florida; Katie Abrahamson-Henderson’s Knights are 25-3 with the best defensive efficiency in the country. Whatever the game plan is, the Huskies better have settled on it at that point, let alone by the time regional tests from the likes of Indiana and NC State surely come their way.
Don’t bet against Auriemma and Dailey figuring out just how to do it, or making alternate plans depending on how much they can get from Bueckers.
“I’m glad we have these 10 days, 11 days, whatever it is,” Auriemma said after the Big East championship. “She’s got a lot of work to do. She has her good days. She has her bad days. She has her good days mentally. She has her bad days mentally. And my big thing is, yeah, get her physically feeling better. But I think she has to get her mind right now because she hasn’t been in that mode for three months, whatever it is now. So that’s going to be job number one the next 10, 11 days. And Paige being Paige, she’ll just be super cooperative.”
Cooperative is one thing. But her recovery needs to cooperate as well. If it does, UConn might just win championship number 12.
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