Paige Bueckers backs strength coach as UConn women’s basketball searches for answers to injury woes

UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma said he expected bad news, and the program confirmed Wednesday that fifth-year forward Aubrey Griffin will miss the rest of the 2023-24 season with a left ACL tear.

Griffin is just the most recent addition to an ever-growing list of major injuries that have plagued the Huskies for three straight seasons. Three other UConn players are out for 2023-24 after injuries that required surgery: Azzi Fudd also with an ACL tear, Jana El Alfy with a ruptured Achilles, and Ayanna Patterson with patellar tendonitis. Star guard Paige Bueckers also missed the entire 2022-23 season with a torn ACL, as did redshirt freshman Ice Brady after dislocating her patella.

The near-constant losses have baffled the UConn sports science staff, which Auriemma described as the “most comprehensive that we’ve ever had.” The program has even sought external opinions, exploring potential explanations ranging from the way players lift weights to impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We talked to someone who, that’s their job. They study these world analytics and data .. and we asked them about what the trend is with the injury situation around the country,” Auriemma said. “The first question they asked was how many of these kids have had COVID. I had never thought of that, and we said all of them. When you look at it, this is when it all started four years ago. It’s weird.”

Tracking every UConn women’s basketball injury over past two seasons, from Azzi Fudd to Aubrey Griffin

Public scrutiny has understandably fallen on Huskies strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy, who returned to Auriemma’s staff in 2021 after previously working with the program from 1995-2004. She spent 15 years as the strength and conditioning coach for the Kansas men’s basketball team and two at Texas, working with both the men’s and women’s teams. Hudy was a part of five women’s basketball national titles at UConn and earned the National Strength and Conditioning Association Impact Award at Kansas in 2017. She was also the organization’s strength and conditioning coach of the year in 2013.

UConn athletic director David Benedict told The Courant he stands behind the Huskies’ preventative care team, from strength coaches to athletic trainers. He noted the team’s issues aren’t coming from the types of injuries that are typically associated with poor conditioning.

“There’s not a link to any of that where you could say, ‘This ties back to a student-athlete that’s out of shape or overworked’ … This is just unfortunate individual incidents that happen,” Benedict said. “You throw your arms up in the air and ask why is this happening to these kids? Unfortunately, part of it is kids are becoming bigger, strong, faster and more explosive. When you create so much torque and force because of how strong you are, it challenges that structural integrity of our bodies.”

Bueckers also backed Hudy, calling her, “the best strength coach in the country.”

“It’s natural to want to blame something, but there’s just some things that are unexplainable, and … she does so much for us,” Bueckers said. “She dedicates her life to her job. We do everything right in the weight room, we do everything right on the court, and still unfortunate situations can happen.”

While the No. 13 Huskies have been especially unlucky, the problem is not unique to UConn. No. 18 Notre Dame has been without star guard Olivia Miles since a season-ending knee injury in March 2023. Texas star Rori Harmon tore her ACL in practice days before the No. 10 Longhorns started Big 12 play. No. 19 Utah lost its best shooter, Gianna Kneepkens, to a foot injury in early December.

“It’s ironic that it’s the last four years that all this has happened all over the country. I’ve never seen it to this extent before,” Auriemma said. “That’s the part that has just been confounding to a lot of people … They’re not getting a pulled muscle here, a pulled muscle there. These are like, unexplainable.”

The injuries take a physical and emotional toll, both on the players experiencing them and on the rest of the team. Auriemma admitted his athletes have often handled the adversity better than he has, but witnessing their ability to overcome so much is helping him find the silver linings.

“The resilience of these kids is something that’s pretty remarkable … If they’re feeling it, which I’m sure they are, they’ve learned how to put it aside and play,” Auriemma said. “I’m the biggest culprit of constantly (thinking), ‘What about tomorrow? What about next week? March, March, March.’ … I think it’s another reminder that hey, how about we focus on what have here today?”