- Katie Barnes is a writer/reporter for espnW. Follow them on Twitter at Katie_Barnes3.
The UConn women’s basketball team is ranked seventh in the country, its lowest since 2007. The Huskies’ record is 6-2, including a loss to an unranked opponent for the first time since 2012. If you told me in July that we’d be here in December…
Remember all that optimism and excitement radiating from Storrs because the 2021-22 Huskies had talent and depth for days? The Final Four core of Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa were back, and coming in were top freshman prospects Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme, alongside graduate transfer Dorka Juhasz. This could be the season that ends the title “drought” in Connecticut, which hasn’t won a national championship since Breanna Stewart led the team to its fourth consecutive championship in the 2015-16 season.
Instead, the decimation that has rocked UConn feels like a legendary force is at work. Did someone find the Thanos gauntlet, gather up all the infinity stones and snap their fingers?
How did that early-season optimism fade to dust — almost like it was “blipped” from existence? And how will the Huskies move forward, starting with Sunday’s top-10 showdown vs. Louisville (3:30 ET, ESPN)? From the very first news conference to the most recent tipoff, I’ve been taking notes.
July 6: Summer session
Coach Geno Auriemma takes a seat behind a table outside Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut, home of the UConn Huskies. It’s the first media availability of the year, and the first not over Zoom since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Auriemma has a lot to say.
“I’m pleasantly surprised at the level of work that they’ve put in,” Auriemma says. “Both in the weight room, with their strength and conditioning, with all the drills and everything that we’ve done on the court. And the improvement from June 1 to today has been significant. You can see it, in pretty much every player, every player. But now when you throw in September, October, November, it’s going to just keep getting better, and better and better. It’s a much more competitive situation than we’ve had the last couple of years.”
The difference is depth. Who will get the minutes is of the utmost intrigue. Will Auriemma platoon sub? (Unlikely). Will he play a bench more than seven or eight deep? (More likely).
Auriemma doesn’t exactly quell the excitement, when talking about the last time he felt such a competitive vibe heading into the fall. “Maybe when Stewie was a freshman,” he says.
That team went 35-4 and won the first of four consecutive national championships. Small potatoes.
It’s worth noting that Bueckers, now a sophomore, hasn’t played all summer as she recovers from ankle surgery. But I leave thinking about something Auriemma says.
“I wish every team that I coached was roll-out-the-ball and win. Unfortunately, that’s boring. Some teams that we’ve had to work harder than we’ve ever worked in our lives and we’ve come up short, and some teams, everything just came together so quickly and meshed so well. And we won championships. It remains to be seen what this team is going to need from the coaching staff. It’s going to take us a while to figure that out. People are going to have to earn their way, and I’m anxious to see how they go about it, and how it shakes out.”
October: First practice
Depth and competition are the buzz words at Werth, the UConn practice facility. Williams puts that front and center when she’s asked about the difference between this team and last year’s.
“We have depth,” the senior guard says. “I feel like that’s something that we were missing in the final four. We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things. It’s extremely competitive this year.”
With the talk of depth and competition also comes expectations. UConn, which has 11 national titles, is in its longest drought since winning its first in 1995. If the questions from reporters reveal anything, it’s that the UConn faithful are growing impatient.
“We try not to listen to that,” Williams says. “Obviously we know people expect a lot from us, just being here at UConn, and the standards are really high. We know that. But again, we take it day by day. We try not to listen to the outside voice.”
Nov. 14: Game 1 vs. Arkansas
It’s been a fun few months speculating about possible UConn starting lineups. Finally we’ll get to see how Auriemma is going to utilize all the talent. Maybe we’ll get a surprise.
Or not. The same five who started in the loss to Arizona in the Final Four are the same five who start today: Seniors Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook and Williams, alongside sophomores Edwards and Bueckers.
Arkansas gave UConn its only regular-season loss in the 2020-21 season, so to open the season against that same team (minus most of the core that beat the Huskies last year), ratchets up the emotion of a typical season opener. Plus, this is the first time many Connecticut fans are seeing the team play in person since the beginning of the pandemic. I can feel the electricity through my screen at my sister’s house in Indiana. I’m watching on TV because of a family commitment, and if I’m honest, it’s killing me. The part of me that loves basketball is dying to see this game live, and the reporter part of me who has written about both Bueckers and Fudd wants to see “The Paige and Azzi Show” for myself.
Fudd plays 19 minutes and scores seven points, but today ends up being the Paige Bueckers show. The reigning Naismith player of the year pours in 34 points on 15-of-19 shooting. She plays every minute, which is a bit of a surprise considering that UConn mostly coasts to a 95-80 win. But the fact that the Huskies give up 80 points is the biggest surprise. Eight players see more than 10 minutes of action, and Ducharme picks up a few minutes as well. But junior Aubrey Griffin, who started five games last season, has some nagging injuries and does not play.
Nov. 15: An early farewell
I can’t say this email was expected today: Subject: UCONN WBB: Poffenbarger to Transfer from UConn.
A 6-foot-2 guard, Saylor Poffenbarger joined UConn a semester early last season. She didn’t see any minutes in the opener this season. Her decision is yet another reminder of how deep and talented this team is. And how difficult it’s going to be for Auriemma to get enough minutes for everyone.
Nov. 20: Game 2 vs. Minnesota
Williams goes off in the Huskies’ first game in the Bahamas. The senior scores 31 points on 12-for-14 shooting. Westbrook has herself a game, too, with 16 points and four assists. Huskies beat Minnesota 88-58. UConn dominates from start to finish, and that opens up some minutes for the bench. Nine players get over 10 minutes, including Fudd and Ducharme. And only one starter, Williams, logs more than 30 minutes (32). Maybe this is what the Huskies will look like moving forward? When Griffin returns, that gives Auriemma a 10-player rotation all capable of playing double-digit minutes. That’s practically unheard of in Storrs.
Nov. 21: Game 3 vs. South Florida
On the one hand, this one is close — 60-53 UConn over South Florida. On the other hand, Fudd. The freshman has 18 points, all on 3-pointers. Bueckers goes big, too, with 21 points. Will this go down in history as the first installment of the “Paige and Azzi Show?” Bottom line: UConn is 3-0. And there’s a little something happening tomorrow.
Nov. 22: Game 4 vs. South Carolina
Well, it’s happening. No. 1 South Carolina and No. 2 UConn will face off in the Bahamas in an early-season battle that is going to tell us a lot about both teams. The AP poll is delayed to allow voters to factor in the results.
For all the talk about depth at UConn, South Carolina is a cut (or two or three) above the rest of the Huskies’ competition so far, and the rotation will say a lot about who Auriemma trusts (and who he doesn’t).
South Carolina dominates the final quarter in a 73-57 victory. It’s clear who the top team in the country is right now. After entering the fourth trailing by three points, UConn scores just three more the rest of the game.
Seven players get double-digit minutes. Juhasz logs 20 minutes and Fudd gets 10. Sophomores Nika Muhl and Mir McLean split five minutes between them.
Fudd’s 10 minutes are her lowest of the season, and she takes just one shot. Defensively she looks like she’s struggling. Something isn’t right. She loves defense, and prides herself on it.
Dec. 1: Fudd sidelined
We get our Fudd answer. Foot injury. Out for at least a couple weeks. It’s been bothering her for a while, which may explain the tentativeness against South Carolina. “She’s a really tough kid,” Auriemma says after practice. “She never wants to sit out. She thinks she can do anything. She tried playing through it and it’s just not working.” Episode 2 of the “Paige and Azzi Show” is paused. And in the meantime, it looks like Muhl and Ducharme may get more minutes.
Dec. 3: Game 5 vs. Seton Hall
From the tip, Seton Hall makes it clear it isn’t intimidated by UConn. At all. The game is tight through the first quarter, but Connecticut begins to grind a lead on the back of Bueckers. She is everywhere. At one point she gets a deflection, gathers the ball, turns and throws a quarterback pass to a streaking Williams, who catches in stride and finishes for a layup. It quiets the crowd and pushes the UConn lead to 13.
The Huskies end up winning comfortably, 74-49. But UConn shows flashes of vulnerability. The team simply isn’t shooting that well, making 18.8% of 3-point attempts. There’s an inability to finish at the rim. Other than Williams and Bueckers (40 points combined), it’s as if no one can get a bucket or unlock the offense.
Griffin, who was supposed to be available, doesn’t play. She’s battling a persistent back injury, and Auriemma doesn’t know when she will be available. “Kid can’t catch a break,” he says.
The depth and competitiveness that was forecast in Storrs over the summer has given way to a tentative bench, leaving a team that relies on Bueckers offensively.
After Auriemma’s news conference, Bueckers takes questions in a hallway. She logged 34 minutes in what amounted to a UConn blowout. On one play, she dove into the Seton Hall bench after a loose ball. Connecticut was up 20 at that point.
When I ask her if that level of output is sustainable. She looks at me and smirks. Then, she laughs. “I love to play basketball, so I’m going to do that until I die,” she says. “I’m going to play hard. I’m going to play as much as I can until Coach takes me out. I guess it’s really not up to me, it’s up to my body. But as long as I can do it, I’m going to do it.”
Dec. 5: Game 6 vs. Notre Dame
Gampel Pavilion is silent. Bueckers is on the floor, and even from my seat up high with the rest of the press corps, it’s obvious that she’s in pain. The silence of the crowd — which was beginning to thin out thanks to Connecticut beating Notre Dame by 18 points with less than a minute to go — is making me anxious. It’s never good to see a player go down with an injury, but it’s especially worrisome when there’s no apparent contact.
The questions quickly ripple through my section.
Did you see it?
Did she run into someone?
No one knows exactly what happened. Bueckers is just on the floor. Well, now she’s being carried off by two teammates. As the final seconds tick away, Bueckers sits with her leg elevated on the bench. She’s UConn’s primary facilitator, leading the Huskies in points, assists and steals. She’s even second in rebounds and blocks.
Once the buzzer sounds, she’s helped up by two members of UConn’s staff. With her arms around their shoulders, Bueckers hobbles through the handshake line. She’s almost off the court when she stops and doubles over.
This is the same athlete who hopped off the trainer’s table after twisting her ankle in Knoxville last season to hit a dagger 3-pointer with the game on the line against Tennessee, even though she’d shot abysmally for the 39 minutes prior. So I’m not at all surprised when she stands back up and continues to limp off the court and into the tunnel.
Seeing Bueckers limp off the court gives the arena a little bit of hope. Maybe the prognosis won’t be so bad…
I’ve never spent so much time refreshing my email. I have to go to the store, but I’m worried that I’ll get the email while I’m away. I shouldn’t have worried. No news on Bueckers’ injury today.
News from Storrs: “UConn women’s basketball sophomore guard Paige Bueckers underwent diagnostic testing after suffering a non-contact injury to the left knee in Sunday’s game vs. Notre Dame.
An MRI and a CT scan revealed a tibial plateau fracture. The estimated time of recovery is 6-8 weeks.”
*Googles tibial plateau fracture*
Two months is a long time to go without your best player, especially when you’re already down two important bench players in Griffin and Fudd. These upcoming games are going to be tough for UConn.
Auriemma comes to the Zoom call with additional news: Muhl isn’t going to play against Georgia Tech. She’s been battling a foot injury that dates back to the opening round of the NCAA tournament. She could be out a few weeks.
This injury doesn’t sound the alarm in the same way the injury to Bueckers did — nor should it — but this is bad for UConn. Muhl proved herself to be an impactful sub for UConn in her freshman season, and her relative absence from the rotation has been curious. Now it makes sense. Muhl, however, is supposed to help mitigate some of the damage of a prolonged injury to Bueckers. Now she’s not available either.
“You’re being cautious so it doesn’t become a worst-case scenario … a broken foot,” Auriemma says. “How quickly people heal depends on each individual.”
I’m doing the math. Paige Bueckers? Out. Azzi Fudd? Out. Aubrey Griffin? Out. Nika Muhl? Out. Saylor Poffenbarger? Gone.
I swear just last week there was a depth dilemma at UConn.
Of the players who have averaged at least 10 minutes a game for UConn, only five are available for the foreseeable future: Williams, Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook, Edwards and Juhasz. The next person up, who may actually start tomorrow, is Ducharme who has averaged 7.8 minutes per game.
The last time you needed more than one hand to count the losses in a UConn season was 2004-05 when Connecticut went 25-8 and was a 3 seed in the tournament. Since then, the Huskies have had four no-loss seasons and three one-loss seasons. UConn hasn’t lost five games in a single season since 2011-12.
To be clear, UConn is still rife with talent. But it’s seeming more possible — almost by the day — that what looked like a difficult three-game stretch that could be a bit bumpy, has morphed into a possible season-altering hellscape for the Huskies.
Dec. 9: Game 7 vs. Georgia Tech
Before tonight, UConn had won 239 consecutive games against unranked opponents. That streak ends with a 57-44 loss to Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets’ suffocating defense has UConn out of sorts all game, particularly in the fourth quarter. Tied at 39-39 heading into the final quarter, UConn scores just five points in the last 10 minutes. UConn shoots 31% from the floor.
Juhasz starts in place of Bueckers, giving the Huskies three “bigs” in their starting five. Ducharme plays 29 minutes, nearly four times her season average. Freshman Amari DeBerry sees her first action, playing 8 minutes. Williams plays every minute, and Westbrook plays all but two. Those two clearly will be shouldering the load in the back court.
This is a group of players that hasn’t shared a court for much of the season, and it’s happening on almost no practice time. Following Bueckers’ injury on Sunday the schedule has looked like this: off-day (Monday), practice (Tuesday), travel day (Wednesday), game day.
In his news conference, Auriemma is despondent. His players are struggling and they have another game in two days.
“I don’t think it’s gonna get fixed,” he says. “I really don’t. I’ve been doing this a long, long time. Coaches are supposed to be eternal optimists. I’m too old to be an optimist. I’m a realist. I truly believe what I see. I don’t try to make up what I’m seeing and pretend it’s something else. I know what I see.
“And what I see is a team that’s somewhat disheveled. And that’s on me. Somehow, some way I do not have the ability at this point in time to affect my players to make sure that we’re in a better place mentally and physically, to play the kind of basketball we need to play.
“I’ve usually been pretty good over the years at making players better. We get really good players coming out of high school, but they get better and better and better every year. And right now, that’s not happening.”
Is Auriemma having a crisis of confidence?
Dec. 11: Game 8 vs. UCLA
Ducharme starts her first game, and Edwards moves to the bench. UCLA opens an 11-point lead, and it looks like this may be a repeat of Georgia Tech. Westbrook is keeping UConn within striking distance, scoring nine of UConn’s first 11 points.
The Huskies claw back to within two at halftime. And then UConn goes on a run of its own across the third and fourth quarters. Through defense, rebounding and offensive execution, the Huskies open a double-digit lead. UConn starts to put the pieces together, figuring out a new identity in real time. Missed free throws open the door for UCLA, but Connecticut pulls out a 10-point victory.
Seven Huskies play, including DeBerry, who gets five minutes. Each of the five starters scores in double figures. Juhasz has a double-double with 16 points and 16 rebounds, and Westbrook winds up with 17 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
But there’s still a cloud. Auriemma says Bueckers may have surgery, which would keep her out until mid- to late February, instead of January as originally forecast.
Dec. 13: Another goodbye
McLean becomes the second player to transfer. That leaves 12 players — eight of them healthy — on the roster. But who’s counting?
Dec. 14: Surgery confirmed
More bad news. Bueckers had surgery on Dec. 13 to repair the tibial plateau fracture in her knee. UConn also reveals that she had a lateral meniscus tear. The adjusted timetable for her return is eight weeks from the date of surgery, which would mean she could return around Feb. 7th.
No. 6 Louisville comes to Mohegan Sun Arena on Sunday after the Huskies get a week of much-needed practice. The question for Connecticut: Can the Huskies replicate what they did vs. UCLA against a higher level of competition? UConn needs production from every available player if it hopes to avoid a third early-season loss.
After the Cardinals, UConn has a 10-day break, which could allow for the return of Fudd/Muhl/Griffin. UConn opens a stretch of seven straight games against Big East teams on Dec. 29 against Marquette, and the Huskies haven’t lost a conference game since 2013. If the injuries persist, that streak could be in jeopardy.
Longer term, if Bueckers’ Feb. 7 return date pans out, that means the Huskies would be without Bueckers for 18 games in all, including the Jan. 27 rematch with South Carolina and the Feb. 6 rivalry game against Tennessee.
Bueckers could return for UConn’s final seven-game stretch against Big East opponents, starting Feb. 9 vs. Villanova.
The margin for error is slim, and a loss (or losses) could further affect the Huskies’ ranking and tournament seeding. And if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s to be ready for anything.
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