June 24, 2023 

Paige Bueckers is ‘the best she’s ever been.’ Can she bring UConn a national title?

Head coach Geno Auriemma estimated this week that Bueckers is 90% healthy after torn ACL

It’s been seven seasons since UConn women’s basketball cut down the nets at the Final Four. In Storrs, Connecticut, that’s a lifetime. The Huskies have won almost 40% of women’s college basketball’s national titles since they claimed their first in 1995.

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UConn head coach Geno Auriemma has never been too proud to admit that having the best player on the court has been the key to the Huskies’ success. Think “We have Diana [Taurasi] and we don’t.” Think of his praise of legendary Huskies Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart. Those three players were key contributors on seven of UConn’s 11 national title teams. There were times they absolutely dominated on the court, and each of the three future Hall-of-Famers has a case for GOAT of the program and of women’s basketball at large.

This season, he might have another player like that in guard Paige Bueckers, who he estimated this week is 90% healthy after tearing her ACL last summer.

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Freshman phenom

When Bueckers stepped onto the UConn campus as a freshman ahead of the 2020-21 season, it didn’t take long for Auriemma to recognize that she was different. Within two weeks, Auriemma proclaimed that the Hopkins, Minnesota, native was the best player on the team.

“I didn’t expect this to happen this soon — I knew it would happen at some point, but I just didn’t expect it to be that quickly and that evident,” Auriemma said at the time. “Nothing that’s happened has surprised me. How quickly it happened and how consistent it’s been throughout the year, that’s been quite surprising and quite rewarding, to be honest with you.”

Auriemma’s analysis was spot on. Bueckers led UConn to the Final Four that season and became the first freshman to win the Naismith and AP Player of the Year awards.

“That’s crazy to think about, all the great college players who ever played,” Bueckers said of the honors. “The great freshmen who had done great things in their first year in college basketball, it really is surreal that it’s never been done before.”

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Injury strikes twice

After her epic freshman campaign, Bueckers was sidelined in just the sixth game of her sophomore season. In the waning moments of a 73-54 victory over rival Notre Dame, her left knee appeared to buckle while bringing the ball up the court. Her teammates helped her to the locker room. A week later, Bueckers underwent surgery to repair an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear.

Bueckers returned to the court with two games remaining in UConn’s 2021-22 season, and, in typical Bueckers fashion, it was legendary. In a double-overtime Elite Eight matchup against NC State in Bridgeport, she took over. She scored 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting, with 15 of those points coming in overtime. The performance earned UConn a spot in its 14th consecutive Final Four, where it came up short in the national title game against the South Carolina Gamecocks.

UConn’s Paige Bueckers celebrates an epic performance against NC State during the 2022 Elite Eight. (Photo credit: UConn women’s basketball Twitter page)

The injury bug bit Bueckers again in the summer of 2022. In a pickup game on Aug. 1, she tore her ACL, which would force her to miss her entire junior season.

“It’s hard trying to make sense of it all now but I can’t help but think that God is using me as a testimony as to how much you can overcome with Him by your side,” Bueckers shared in an Instagram post at the time. “Some little kid that just tore their ACL or had a major surgery might need this story P, because it’s going to be one hell of a comeback.”

Even with her positive public attitude, it was clear that the injury was devastating to the heralded hooper. As teammates ran in a single-file line onto the court for each game during the 2022-23 season, Bueckers was forced to walk behind. Although she was always there to cheer on teammates from the bench, you could see in her eyes the pain she carried being forced to miss more time playing the game she loves. During a rough patch for the Huskies last season, Bueckers offered some perspective.

“If I shot 0-for-20, I would just feel so blessed and so fortunate to even shoot 0-for-20, to even get that opportunity, to just play the game,” Bueckers said. “I think that’s a huge thing with this season. They had the opportunities to fix it. They can play another game. We’ll lose or we’ll play a bad game, but we have an opportunity the next day in practice and the next game to show that we can be better.”

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Best yet to come?

It would be an understatement to say that Bueckers’ first three college seasons haven’t played out the way she had hoped. With three seasons behind her, the UConn point guard has three seasons of eligibility remaining: her would-be senior campaign (2023-24), her redshirt season (2024-25) and her bonus COVID year (2025-26). With 1.6 million followers across social media platforms and a $736,000 name, image and likeness (NIL) valuation, Bueckers faces no financial pressure to start her professional career. Time will tell how she plans to use her remaining NCAA eligibility.

There’s also reason to believe that Bueckers will be back in elite form this upcoming season.

“This is the best she’s ever been, the strongest she’s ever been, the fittest she’s ever been,” Auriemma said of Bueckers this week. “This is the most time she has spent working on her body, her mind [and] just taking care of herself … [The injury layoff] showed her, if you want a long career, this is how you’re gonna have to go about it from here on … Injuries, no injuries, it doesn’t matter. This is what you’re gonna have to do. And she’s embraced it.”

That report is a frightening prospect for UConn’s opponents. With Bueckers at point guard; veterans Aaliyah EdwardsNika Mühl, Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme; and an impressive freshman class, UConn should be firmly in the national title conversation this season.

No championship has been won by just one player, but, as Auriemma knows, it certainly helps to have the best player on the floor, especially deep in the postseason. Bueckers is usually the best player on the court, and her return may be the key to UConn’s elusive 12th national championship.

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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