The women's college basketball world took a loss before the season even began. UConn star Paige Bueckersand is expected to be out for the entire 2022-23 season. This leaves the Huskies with plenty of uncertainty and gaps to fill.
Bueckers is not the only player worth watching in women's college basketball, but her star power and impact on the game is undeniable. UConn has been an established powerhouse for a long while now with 11 national championships, but until earlier this year, the Huskies hadn't reached the title game since 2016. Bueckers' arrival in 2020 proved to be the push in the right direction UConn needed. However, Bueckers' injuries have led to a lot of what ifs for her and her team.
Outstanding freshman season
The 5-foot-11 guard was a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school, and she lived up to the hype as a freshman in 2020-21. She started 29 games and averaged 20 points and 4.9 rebounds, shooting 52.4% from the field and 46.4% from 3-point range. She was the Huskies' top scorer while also leading the team in steals (66) and assists (5.8 per game). Bueckers set the UConn freshman record for assists with a total of 168 and also set the school's single-game assist record with 14 against Butler on Feb. 27, 2021.
Unsurprisingly, Bueckers received 11 major honors that season. She was the first freshman to earn the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year and USBWA Player of the Year.
The Huskies ended that season with a 28-2 overall record after losing to Arizona in the semifinals of the 2021 NCAA Women's Tournament. It wasn't how UConn wanted to wrap up its campaign, but the sky was the limit for the program because of what Bueckers accomplished as a freshman and what she could be capable of with another year of experience under her belt.
UConn's only other loss that season came to No. 19 Arkansas in late January, which leads us to...
Roller coaster sophomore season, first major injury
The Huskies' 2021-22 season opened with Arkansas, and this time UConn was able to turn it around and get a 95-80 win against the Razorbacks. UConn's first loss came at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas last November, a 73-57 result in favor of South Carolina. It was nothing to be ashamed of because the Gamecocks were -- and still are -- an outstanding team.
Things seemed to be going mostly well for the Huskies -- but then Dec. 5 happened.
UConn, ranked No. 2 at the time, grabbed a 73-54 victory against No. 24 Notre Dame, and Bueckers' 22-point performance led the way. With just seconds left in the game, Bueckers was dribbling up the court, stumbled and took an awkward fall. The seriousness of the injury was clear right away because she had to be carried off the court. The following week, Bueckers underwent surgery for an anterior tibial plateau fracture and a lateral meniscus tear on her left leg.
The Huskies clearly needed to regroup after that, as they took a 57-44 loss to Georgia Tech in their first game without Bueckers. After the game, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said the team felt "disorganized."
Eventually, the Huskies were able to adjust as senior guard Christyn Williams stepped up as the leading scorer. Bueckers missed 19 games before returning in late February. In her first game back, Bueckers came off the bench and registered eight points on 4-for-5 shooting in 12 minutes.
It took her a few weeks to get back to the level she was at before. Bueckers finally looked like her old self during UConn's Elite Eight game against NC State. The Huskies walked away with a 91-87 win after surviving double overtime -- the first time ever in an Elite Eight game -- against the No. 1-seeded Wolfpack. Bueckers only had four points in the first half, but she ended the night with a game-high 27 points -- with 15 of those coming after regulation.
During the postgame press conference, Williams explained their win in the simplest way she could.
"We have Paige Bueckers and they don't," she said.
UConn earned its 14th consecutive Final Four trip and eventually made it to the 2022 women's national championship game against South Carolina. The Gamecocks dominated from the beginning, though, and took the trophy with a 64-49 win.
Bueckers registered 14 points and six rebounds against the Gamecocks, but she was the only UConn player to finish in double figures.
Nevertheless, it was a good learning experience for UConn.
"I like our chances," Auriemma said after the game. "Provided we don't have to navigate a season like we did this year — knock on wood — if we stay healthy, I expect to be back here next year."
Although UConn lost Nelson-Odada and Williams, a healthy Bueckers alongside Fudd seemed capable of lifting the team to similar heights in 2022-23. The Huskies were expected to be very competitive once again, but now the question is who will step up for Bueckers in wake of her devastating injury.
Bueckers ended her sophomore campaign with averages of 14.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 54.4% from the field in 17 games. Those stats weren't as strong as they were in her freshman season, but they would've likely been the same or better had it not been for her midseason injury. Bueckers is impactful on both sides of the ball, and the Huskies will certainly miss that next season as they figure out their depth.
Without Nelson-Odada, a 6-foot-5 forward, the team loses its leader in shooting percentage (59.5%) and rebounding (7.5 per game) from a season ago. She also had the most steals (55) and assists (116) on the team last season. Meanwhile, Williams left as the second-leading scorer behind Bueckers, as she averaged 14.2 points per game in 2021-22.
So, Fudd is now UConn's only double-digit scorer returning. Last season, she averaged 12.1 points per game while shooting 45.7% from the field and a team-best 43.0% from 3-point range. The 5-foot-11 guard will be entering her sophomore season with a bigger role than she probably expected.
Staying healthy will be more important than ever for the Huskies. Other players working on recovery this offseason are Dorka Juhász (wrist), Caroline Ducharme (hip) and Aubrey Griffin (back). Griffin, a 6-foot-1 forward, dealt with a handful of injuries and missed all of last season, undergoing back surgery in January.
As far as newcomers go, the Huskies also have one of the top 2022 recruiting classes. This incoming class includes Ayanna Patterson and Ice Brady, who rank fourth and fifth, respectively, among ESPN's 2022 prospects.
UConn will likely not cruise through next season, but Auriemma's record speaks for itself, so the Huskies shouldn't be counted out any time soon. As for Bueckers, she has made it clear that she is already working on what she believes will be "one hell of a comeback."