After Azzi Fudd's season-ending injury, is UConn's women's basketball dynasty over?

Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd watch the UConn Huskies warm up before a game last season. Fudd will miss the remainder of the 2023-24 season with a torn meniscus and ACL in her right knee. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

Connecticut came into the season poised to contend for another title with what on paper was the most talented roster in the game. It came with a caveat of health after injuries throughout the roster torpedoed their title chances last season.

The caveat is no more.

The Huskies will be without one of their No. 1 recruits for a second consecutive season due to injury. The program announced Azzi Fudd is out for the year with a torn ACL and medial meniscus tear in her right knee. It’s a jolt to not only the Huskies’ 2024 title chances, but their teetering stance atop women’s college basketball’s current powerhouses.

For years, the 11-time national champions have remained on the doorstep of another title even as more powers join them there with parity and talent growing. Now, UConn’s dynasty era may have finally closed even if the Huskies can win a 12th title this season.

Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the 2021 class, and Paige Bueckers, the top recruit in the 2020 class, were the young stars meant to take UConn back to a title. The Huskies haven’t won since 2016, when Breanna Stewart won her fourth in four years. It’s the longest drought of head coach Geno Auriemma’s tenure, a dynasty that won championships in 1995, 2000, 2002-04, 2009-10 and 2013-16.

But, as Bueckers said earlier this month, they have yet to be No. 1 in April when it counts as the team lifting the trophy. Fudd and Bueckers have played only 17 games together over three years while both have dealt with injuries.

UConn’s Final Four chances in 2024

This was supposed to be the season it possibly all came together with their two healthy star guards, a dominant post and experience down through a hopefully healthy roster. Ice Brady, a redshirt freshman forward and No. 5 overall recruit in 2022, returned from a knee injury. KK Arnold, a top-10 recruit in the 2023 class, joined the mix.

Bueckers, the 2021 Naismith winner, returned after missing all of last season with an ACL tear. She’s a multi-level playmaker with high court vision and basketball IQ who has been deemed a generational talent. As a sophomore, she carried UConn to the national championship game.

Fudd, a 5-foot-11 junior guard, is one of the cleanest shooters in college basketball with form that has drawn admiration from NBA champion sharpshooter Stephen Curry. She dealt with a foot injury as a freshman and then with right knee injuries last season. In 15 games as a sophomore, she averaged 15.1 points in 28.2 minutes per game.

Those numbers were expected to rise next to Bueckers for a full season. She started strong against Dayton shooting 4-of-7 from 3, but 33.3% overall. It was about the same, but with only one 3, in the shocking upset to NC State that first drew questions about what was really wrong with the Huskies. They were crushed on the boards and couldn’t stop the Wolfpack defensively.

UConn’s offense has looked less smooth this season, particularly with Fudd out of the lineup in the past two games. The team will miss her offense, and are already without freshman center Jana El Alfy, who tore her Achilles while playing for Egypt in the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer. Bueckers has carried the offense and UConn can, for the most part, continue to rely on that.

Having Bueckers and dominant showings from Aaliyah Edwards, a Canadian national team member, can push UConn back into the Final Four after its 14-year streak was snapped last year. A title could even be within reach. But it became more difficult with Fudd’s absence, both physically and mentally after the toll of last season’s injuries.

UConn's Aaliyah Edwards will be needed to step up in Azzi Fudd's absence. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)
UConn's Aaliyah Edwards will be needed to step up in Azzi Fudd's absence. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)

Is the UConn dynasty over?

An injury doesn’t put an end to a dynasty, though when one is at its tail end anyway, it puts a damper on it. UConn’s two top recruits rarely playing together in their quest to break the skid is the sad music on its ending.

Even with a championship in April, Bueckers could leave for the WNBA instead of opting for an extra year with the COVID-19 waiver. Fudd would be coming back from another major injury. There is no superstar in the wings to win another, even though those aren’t guaranteed, anyway.

One thing standing in the way now compared to title years past is just how many good teams there are come March to knock them out. As decades roll by after Title IX, and tens of thousands of girls devote childhoods to basketball, the depth of talent is growing and the breadth of title contenders widens.

There are more highly talented players, and those top players are choosing schools that don’t necessarily have long winning histories. The transfer portal means a team in the middle of the pack can turn into a champion within a year. If you build it, like UConn did, they will come. Until the grass outside is greener elsewhere.

South Carolina freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley drives around South Dakota State guard Madison Mathiowetz during their game on Nov. 20, 2023, at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina. (Jeff Blake/USA TODAY Sports)

South Carolina, the team that defeated UConn in 2022, is the new powerhouse, but by no means a dynasty yet. The Gamecocks went undefeated last season until the Final Four and might be even better this season, at least in Maryland head coach Brenda Frese’s opinion. Head coach Dawn Staley has been pulling in better recruiting classes and won the school’s first title with forward A’ja Wilson, who chose to stay home.

Iowa upset South Carolina in the Final Four with another hometown star in Caitlin Clark. The starting five was the same for three seasons, unheard of chemistry building in the modern college game that helped them through a tough slate. UConn hasn’t had the ability to build that in the Bueckers era because of the injuries.

No. 3 Colorado is in a similar situation with its returning core. No. 7 LSU built its championship in a year with transfers under head coach Kim Mulkey.

The last two No. 1 recruits are both in the Pac-12, but not the one fans of a decade ago might think. Lauren Betts, the No. 1 recruit in 2022, started at Stanford before transferring to No. 2-ranked UCLA. (The Huskies will face those high-ranked Bruins on Friday in the Cayman Islands Classic.) Freshman guard JuJu Watkins grew up 10 miles from the No. 8 USC campus and is already lighting up highlight reels for the Trojans.

Bueckers and Fudd were supposed to revive the dynasty into the 2020s. Instead, injuries have taken their time away and helped open the door further for the rest of the teams on the doorstep.