February 18, 2024 

What Paige Bueckers and Aubrey Griffin’s return means for UConn

'I just feel like I'm not done yet'

During their Senior Night ceremony on Friday night, UConn seniors Aubrey Griffin and Paige Bueckers confirmed that they will be back in UConn uniforms next season. The news is positive for a UConn program that, unfortunately, has not been able to consistently see either player at their best due to a series of injuries that have sidelined both for significant time during their collegiate careers.

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Griffin appeared in all 32 games off the bench during her freshman season (2019-20), which was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. UConn’s season ended with a title in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) tournament, the program’s final game as a member of that conference. During her sophomore season, Griffin played in 29 games with five starts, averaging 6.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. She was joined that season by a dynamic freshman class that included guards Paige Bueckers and Nika Mühl as well as forward Aaliyah Edwards, all of whom were honored during Friday’s night’s Senior Night ceremony. Bueckers dominated that season, averaging 20.0 ppg en route to becoming the first freshman to earn the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year and USBWA Player of the Year.

Since then, Griffin and Bueckers have been unable to complete a full season as healthy players on UConn’s roster. Griffin missed her entire junior season due to a combination of injuries. Bueckers played just 17 games as a sophomore due to injury, then missed the entire 2022-23 season after tearing her ACL. This season — Griffin’s fifth and Buecker’s fourth at UConn — ended prematurely for Griffin when she tore her ACL during a Jan. 3 matchup against Creighton.

As Griffin and Bueckers addressed their home crowd on Friday, they shined with gratitude for the time they’ve spent in Storrs, and optimism for their futures there.

“I can’t put into words what this program has meant to me and what you guys have meant to me. The best student section in the country,” Bueckers said on Friday. “Obviously, these four years didn’t go how I planned or how I wanted it to go, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I wouldn’t be able to get through what I went through without everybody here just supporting.”

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Proven leadership

When UConn wing Aubrey Griffin stepped onto campus as a freshman in Fall 2019, it was a bit of a changing-of-the-guard moment for the storied program. Graduated just months earlier were the last players who were part of the Breanna Stewart-era Huskies teams that dominated college basketball, winning four consecutive national championships from 2013-16. Seniors Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson departed Storrs as the highest scoring pair of classmates in the history of Connecticut women’s basketball. As freshman, alongside Stewie, the pair won a national title. In their final three seasons they advanced to the Final Four, losing just five total games across four seasons.

Since that season, the UConn program has come back down to earth, so to speak. A program that lost just six games between 2013-2019 has since lost 22 games. During Griffin and Bueckers’ time in Storrs, the program has lost consecutive games for the first time since 1993, missed the Final Four for the first time in 14 seasons and fell to it’s lowest ranking in the AP Poll in 30 years.

Over the past three seasons, UConn has navigated an unprecedented pattern of bad injury luck. This season, in addition to Griffin, the Huskies have experienced the season-ending injuries of guards Caroline Ducharme and Azzi Fudd as well as bigs Jana El Alfy and Ayanna Patterson. The team’s lack of depth emerged as a major weakness in a 83-65 bludgeoning by South Carolina last weekend.

The Huskies are far from the favorites to win the national championship, landing as the final No. 3 seed in the most recent NCAA bracket reveal. While anything can happen in March, this team’s ceiling is a bit lower strictly due to the number of injured players. Looking towards next season’s roster, with the return of Bueckers and Griffin, UConn has reason for hope after a difficult three-year stretch.

It starts with Bueckers, who is one of the best players in the country and will be the centerpiece of the roster next season. Griffin — the first player in history to play six years with Coach Auriemma — provides a steady, proven role as the team’s energetic and efficient sixth woman.

While seniors Nika Mühl and Aaliyah Edwards declined to share their plans for next season, we know that elite shooting guard Azzi Fudd is returning and, barring further injuries, has a chance to play a full season alongside Bueckers in the backcourt. Freshmen KK Arnold, Ashlynn Shade and Qadence Samuels will return as sophomores having the benefit of experience provided by stepping confidently into larger-than-expected roles this season. The return of Caroline Ducharme‘s height and shooting abilities will provide a strong presence on the wing. Ice Brady, Jana Al Elfy and Ayanna Patterson will work into the rotation as a talented yet unproved trio of bigs, adding depth in the post that UConn has lacked over the past several seasons.

The Huskies also add incoming freshman in five-star recruits Morgan Cheli and Allie Ziebell. Cheli, a 6’2 guard, fits the tall guard mold that plays an important role in Geno Auriemma’s offense. Ziebell adds an off-ball scoring presence that brings depth to an already-efficient backcourt. Sarah Strong, the nation’s incoming No. 1 recruit from the class of 2024, still has UConn on her list.

“There’s a lot of excitement about the possibilities of having a full squad,” Auriemma said.

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As UConn has learned over the past few seasons, nothing is guaranteed. By announcing their intent to return to Storrs next season, however, Griffin and Bueckers have guaranteed that next season’s team will have at least two proven leaders to provide a solid foundation. Together the duo has navigated the COVID season and significant, career-altering injuries. They have been forced to adjust and change roles as their teammates suffered injuries. They’ve picked each other up and moved forward. Strengthened by those experiences, they have the opportunity next season to usher in the next generation of Huskies while adding to their own legacies.

“I just feel like I’m not done yet here,” Bueckers told SNY on Senior Day. “I feel like God is still writing my story here. I’m just blessed to be a part of this program, and I never want it to end.”

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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