UConn needs more than Paige Bueckers to turn around another injury-riddled season

Texas guard Shaylee Gonzalez drives past UConn guard Paige Bueckers during their game Sunday in Austin, Texas. (Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Texas guard Shaylee Gonzalez drives past UConn guard Paige Bueckers during their game Sunday in Austin, Texas. (Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma chalked it up to rust as guard Paige Bueckers gears back up from missing a full season while rehabbing a torn ACL. But he was still blunt in describing Bueckers’ performance in a 80-68 road loss to Texas on Sunday as “lousy today, quite honestly.”

“Paige isn’t good when she needs seven dribbles to get a shot off,” Auriemma said. “Paige isn’t good when she’s got to take on guys one against two, one against three, going in the lane and forcing things, hoping to get to the free-throw line. That’s not her game. That’s not who she is.”

The redshirt junior guard scored 13 points on an inefficient 36.4% clip. She had five points on five attempts in the first half, and UConn trailed by 14.

It was the Huskies’ third loss of the young season, making this the earliest UConn (4-3) has lost three games since 1980-81. Two of those losses were to programs that had never defeated UConn before this season (Texas, UCLA), another signifier that the powerhouse program has dropped from the top ranks. The Huskies tumbled in The Associated Press Top 25 poll to No. 17, their lowest ranking since the 1993-94 season. Their 357-week run in the top 15 is over.

The Huskies appear to be turning to Bueckers to save them after a season-ending injury to her backcourt pal, Azzi Fudd, disturbed the team’s starting lineup plans for a third consecutive season. For them to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, she’ll have to play better. But it can’t all fall on Bueckers and center Aaliyah Edwards, who had 22 points (9-of-11) with six rebounds and three assists Sunday.

Bueckers’ game has always been about court vision, and she’s at her best when all of her teammates are involved. Lately, many of those teammates have been ready to watch Bueckers go into takeover mode, hurting both superstar and team. Collectively, they’ve struggled with turnovers and miscues that snowball.

None of it is sustainable for UConn, which should look down the roster at its other McDonald’s All-Americans to step up in the backcourt with Bueckers.

Paige Bueckers’ stat line has one glaring difference

Bueckers’ stat line through seven games isn’t too dissimilar from her Naismith-winning numbers as a freshman in 2020-21. She’s still scoring about 20 points a game. She’s still rebounding at a five-per-game clip. Her efficiency is down slightly, but it’s not the most glaring difference. That appears deeper in the chart.

Her average assists have plummeted from 5.8 as a freshman to 2.9 as a redshirt junior. UConn’s team assist numbers have also tanked from 20.4 that season to 15.6 (a 63.7% assist rate down to 53.4%).

It’s the numbers version of what anyone watching their games can see: The ball isn’t moving well, and neither is the once-terrifyingly powerful UConn offense. Bueckers is being tasked with being the team’s ball-handler, playmaker and, after Fudd's injury, top 3-point shooter.

Bueckers (19.6 ppg) and Edwards (15.4 ppg) are the only players averaging double digits and taking more than six field-goal attempts per game. A defense can take that away enough and bet on others beating themselves. So far, it has worked.

How UConn can support Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards

If the current lineup isn’t working, it’s time to shake things up. That should mean playing the freshmen, who were a bright spot for UConn in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 of the team’s 25 points. It was the only frame the Huskies won, and they came within six of Texas after trailing by 17 to start the quarter.

“I thought they were the difference in the game [and] that they gave us a chance to win the game,” Auriemma said.

Guard KK Arnold, a top-10-ranked recruit and McDonald’s All-American, led all UConn scorers in the period with six points (2-of-3), two assists and one steal in eight minutes. Ashlynn Shade, also a McDonald’s All-American, scored five on a perfect 2-of-2 in eight minutes. And Qadence Samuels scored four, also going 2-of-2.

“Those freshmen really earned the opportunity going forward to get even more minutes, and I’m going to give it to them,” Auriemma said. “Whatever that means, that’s what it means. Our goal is to be a much better team in March than we are in November, and I think they can go a long way toward doing that.”

Putting in the freshmen is two-fold. For one, they performed better. Also, they're fresh faces who haven’t experienced the mental toll of the past few years of devastating injuries. Their enthusiasm is still fresh, and they can build something new without remembering what it was like. It would also set the Huskies up for future seasons with experienced, young talent.