Saturday , August 13 2022

How Paige Bueckers’ injury impacts the UConn Huskies and the 2022-23 women’s college basketball season

UConn Huskies star guard Paige Bueckers has suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, which will sideline her for the 2022-23 women’s college basketball season and cause a ripple effect throughout the sport.

One of the marquee players in the game, Bueckers was the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2020 and has helped UConn reach the women’s Final Four each of the last two seasons. The Huskies fell in the championship game to the South Carolina Gamecocks in April in Bueckers’ home state of Minnesota.

The 5-foot-11 Bueckers, who turns 21 in October, had a phenomenal freshman season for the Huskies and was the 2020-21 consensus national player of the year. She had surgery on her right ankle after that season, but returned ready to go for 2021-22. However, Bueckers was injured near the end of UConn’s victory over Notre Dame last Dec. 5, suffering an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear, also in the left knee. She missed 19 games, then came back in late February.

Bueckers averaged 20.0 points and 4.9 assists as a freshman and 14.6 and 4.0 as a sophomore. We look at how Bueckers’ injury will impact the Huskies and the national championship race this coming season.

How does Bueckers’ injury impact UConn for the 2022-23 season and what adjustments will the Huskies make without her in the lineup?

A team that was one win away from taking home the national championship four months ago no doubt faces way more of an uphill battle as it seeks to return to a 15th consecutive Final Four. Losing three WNBA draft picks — Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook, the first two of whom were three- and four-year starters, respectively — was going to be an adjustment as it was. But Bueckers’ absence removes a transcendent point guard and passer, phenomenal shooter and team leader from a program that is on its longest stretch without a national title since winning its first in 1995.

The Huskies are now down to four healthy backcourt players: sophomore Azzi Fudd, sophomore Caroline Ducharme, junior Nika Muhl and Fairfield graduate transfer Lou Lopez Senechal. And only Muhl is a true point guard.

There were times this past season when, with Fudd and Bueckers sidelined for multiple months, UConn played with just three healthy guards. It’s not out of the question that something like that could happen in 2022-23 if the Huskies suffer more bad injury luck. Regardless, that lack of depth is rather unideal for the more guard-oriented system that Geno Auriemma likes to run. Note, too, that Ducharme is coming off an offseason hip injury and Fudd was participating in team workouts on a limited basis while attempting to fully heal the foot injury that hindered her most of her freshman year.

Muhl has shined on the defensive end her last two seasons, but will need to be as reliable as ever running the point with strong decision-making and foul-free play. (And then who’s going to be the backup point guard? Fudd?) Ducharme — who helped carry the team when Fudd and Bueckers were out — will need to quickly re-assert herself as a go-to option like she was during that aforementioned stretch.

And then there’s Fudd, Bueckers’ close friend and a fellow No. 1 overall recruit. With so many veteran players having graduated and Bueckers sidelined, Fudd is now burdened with more offensive responsibility than expected for what she’s hoping is her first full healthy season in Storrs. She will have to quickly emerge as the superstar so many expect her to ultimately become if the Huskies want to achieve many of their same goals this season.

It’s not as if the Huskies are left without any strong pieces in 2022-23, but their ceiling is significantly lower without a player like Bueckers, who isn’t just individually talented but makes her teammates around her better. — Philippou

How far does UConn fall in the preseason polls?

In the most recent ESPN Way-Too-Early top 25 rankings on June 14, we had the Huskies at No. 2 behind defending champion South Carolina, with the Stanford Cardinal, Tennessee Lady Vols and Texas Longhorns rounding out the top five. Bueckers is a key component to the team, obviously, but the Huskies did play nearly three months without her last season. And since this injury is in early August, the team doesn’t have to adjust in midstream to her absence.

Still, the Huskies will drop, probably even out of the top five. For now, that would be a reasonable place for UConn — say at No. 6 or 7 — considering the Huskies also lost veterans Williams, Westbrook and Nelson-Ododa. — Voepel

UConn plays Texas, NC State, Duke, Notre Dame and either Iowa or Oregon State in the first month of the season. How might the Huskies emerge from that schedule?

Last season the Huskies nearly beat Louisville without Fudd and Bueckers, and successfully took down Tennessee without Bueckers, so it’s not out of the question that they can compete against quality teams with Bueckers out. Still, it wouldn’t be shocking if UConn’s early 2022-23 slate looks somewhat similar to how 2021-22 went: several bumps in the road when the Huskies were trying to figure things out sans Bueckers (and Fudd at the time), but then finding more of a rhythm as the season went on, even independent of Bueckers’ return.

Timing isn’t exactly on their side, at least in terms of their highest-caliber competition being concentrated in the first month of the season, as the team is going to have to basically reinvent itself without Williams, Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook and Bueckers. UConn will have probably figured things out more so, though, by the national title game rematch against South Carolina on Feb. 5. — Philippou

How does Bueckers’ injury impact the national championship race this coming season?

UConn won an epic regional final against NC State last season to advance to its 14th consecutive Final Four. There was a lot of thought that the streak would end last year, as some confidence waned in the Huskies while Bueckers was out. But as soon as she returned, it seemed they got back on track quickly.

It’s a different picture this season with Bueckers sidelined. The Gamecocks, with last season’s national player of the year back in Aliyah Boston, will be a very strong pick to repeat, as well as be the top team in the SEC (although Tennessee should be a challenger).

Stanford, the 2021 champion, is always able to reload quickly after personnel losses, and that will be the case again this season after losing guards Lexie Hull, Lacie Hull and Anna Wilson. With stars like Haley Jones and Cameron Brink back, plus adding 6-7 Lauren Betts, the Cardinal will be heavily in the championship hunt. Tennessee and Texas both picked up a lot of talent from the transfer portal, as did Louisville, NC State and LSU. Iowa and Iowa State both return much of their talent from last season, and both will be among the top teams in their respective conferences.

The last of UConn’s 11 NCAA titles was in 2016, and Beuckers’ absence makes it more likely that drought might continue. However, it was already going to be a very competitive group of the most likely contenders, even with Bueckers healthy. — Voepel

How does this impact the 2023 WNBA draft, for which Buekers was eligible? And what does it mean for her future at UConn, where she has three years of eligibility remaining?

Bueckers will turn 22 in October 2023, which means she is able to leave college early and enter the 2023 draft. WNBA rules stipulate that players who turn 22 in the same calendar year of the draft are eligible for it even if they are not seniors.

But Bueckers previously has said that she had no plans to enter this upcoming draft. She has been one of the top players to cash in on Name, Image and Likeness deals, and association with the UConn brand name is bigger, frankly, than that of any WNBA team.

The NIL opportunities allow Bueckers to make the most of her popularity with the Huskies and in college basketball, so most have expected her to play the next two college seasons and go in the 2024 draft, and she indicated that was also her plan. However, because of the extra year of eligibility student-athletes got due to COVID-19, she actually could have stayed until 2025.

Now, with her 2022-23 season lost, will Bueckers still be in the 2024 draft, having played just three seasons at UConn? It depends on how she heals and how she is feeling. If she wants to have all four seasons in college, then we won’t see her until the 2025 draft. Or she could stay all the way until 2026. She has stated a strong desire to win a national championship, so that could factor in as well. — Voepel




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