With Paige Bueckers in 'Coach P' role while injured, UConn must fill roster production to hit high standards

Paige Bueckers, one of college basketball’s most widely recognized players, is unable to be physically on the court this season while rehabbing an ACL tear she sustained in August. But the 2021 Naismith Player of the Year will remain on the bench serving as “Coach P” for a Connecticut Huskies team working to keep injuries from ending its historic stretch of 14 consecutive Final Fours.

“I’m head coach. Coach [Geno Auriemma] let me take his spot,” Bueckers told local reporters in September, a month after the injury. “No, I’m just kidding. But I’m the players’ coach, I’m going to be the one they can talk to, the one that’s going to push them, also the one they can rely on when they need support. I’m definitely taking that job as a coach, but I’m not sure which job I’m taking.”

Bueckers is fulfilling the role to its fullest in the best way she knows how. The 5-foot-11 guard first introduced her new role during the team’s internal media day festivities by walking around with a clipboard and whistle in a video captured by Nika Mühl.

She posed with the whistle and towel for media day pictures, later sharing them to her Instagram with “Just a quick temporary switch up.” The official team account called her “COACH P” and teammate Dorka Juhasz told her, “Put me in, Coach.”

There’s always a lot of jesting around Storrs, Connecticut, but Auriemma is also on board with the new role. (Except, one would assume, the part where Bueckers is taking his spot.)

“I’m anxious to have her learn more about the game by doing those things, by sitting in practice and watching from a coach’s eyes instead of a player’s eyes,” Auriemma said, via the Associated Press. “And she’ll be the same Paige she’s always been, though, and she’ll get carried away and she’ll want to do this and she’ll want to do that, and she’ll want to have input in this.”

Bueckers spending a season at the collegiate level as a student coach will only improve the point guard’s already high basketball IQ and elevate the talents that made her the first freshman Player of the Year in the award’s 39-year history. She said she will return to school for her senior season instead of enter the 2023 WNBA draft, which she’s eligible for because she turns 22 that year.

But UConn first has to focus on the upcoming season, one in which nearly every starting role will need to be filled after losing more than half of its statistical production.

Filling roster production

UConn, ranked No. 6 in the preseason Associated Press poll, was already going to have to fill voids left by guards Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook and center Olivia Nelson-Ododa, all of whom were drafted into the WNBA. Now, with Bueckers out, the Huskies return only one of their top five most-used players. Bueckers (14.6 ppg) and Williams (14.2 ppg) led the scoring efforts.

The four combined contributed 63.7% of the team’s scoring, 48.1% of rebounds, 57.7% of assists, 50.8% of steals and 53.3% of blocks.

The top scoring threat will be Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the 2021 class who was hampered by a foot injury last season. She averaged 12.1 ppg, was the team’s most efficient 3-point shooter at 43% (58-for-135) and by far the sharpest at the free-throw line (91.2%). Auriemma will look to her to handle the ball more as well as Mühl, the junior guard who stepped in for Bueckers.

UConn guard Azzi Fudd is the Huskies' top scoring threat this season with injuries sidelining some of her teammates. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
UConn guard Azzi Fudd is the Huskies' top scoring threat this season with injuries sidelining some of her teammates. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Health will be a key factor in the Huskies' season with 10 players on the roster after injuries to Bueckers and freshman Ice Brady. Brady, who won gold at the 2022 FIBA U18 Americas Championship, came in as the No. 5-ranked recruit by ESPN. She sustained a dislocated patella in her right knee during an Oct. 21 practice and is ruled out for the season.

Those 10 on the roster include key players still working back from their own injuries. Sophomore guard Caroline Ducharme (9.8 ppg) is coming off of hip surgery. Juhasz (7.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 19.8 mpg), a 6-5 forward, is returning from a fractured left wrist she injured in the NCAA regional final. Junior forward Aaliyah Edwards (7.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg) said at Big East media day she will start the season wearing a face mask after breaking her nose and experiencing concussion symptoms in a practice collision.

Joining the returners is forward Ayanna Patterson, the No. 4 overall recruit in the 2022 class by ESPN. She was voted the preseason pick for Big East Freshman of the Year. UConn added guard/forward Lou Lopez-Sénéchal as a graduate transfer after she led Fairfield to the MAAC championship and NCAA tournament appearance. And in August, after Bueckers’ injury, UConn brought on freshman Inês Bettencourt from Portugal as a late addition.

Keep up with the Huskies' high standards

The Huskies’ winning streaks are wild to consider and as other programs improve around them, they become more at risk of falling. That remains true heading into 2022-23.

While Bueckers was out for nearly three months last season with a non-contact injury to her left leg, UConn lost its first conference regular season game since 2013. It was a streak of 145 games snapped by Villanova.

Two nights later, DePaul had its eyes on history only to fall short. It’s been 29 years comprising 1,059 contests since UConn lost back-to-back games, a stretch that dates to March 1993. That will come up again this month and next as the Huskies face a total of five teams in the AP Top 25 over seven games. Their upcoming schedule:

Nov. 14: vs. No. 3 Texas

Nov. 20: vs. No. 10 N.C. State

Nov. 25: vs. Duke

Dec. 2: vs. Providence

Dec. 4: at No. 9 Notre Dame

Dec. 8: vs. No. 24 Princeton

Dec. 11: at No. 17 Maryland

Bueckers returned at the end of the regular season en route to their 20th Big East championship. It was their ninth straight conference title, including seven straight in the American Athletic Conference. UConn was voted the unanimous preseason coaches’ poll pick to win the Big East again, but it’s not going to be easy.

Creighton, ranked No. 21 in the AP poll, put on a historic Elite Eight run and came within eight points of UConn in their January meeting. Villanova features reigning Big East Player of the Year Maddy Siegrist. DePaul, voted fourth in the poll, boasts the Freshman Player of the Year Aneesah Morrow and was a bucket away from beating UConn in their first meeting last season.

The bigger streak fans have their eyes on is the NCAA tournament, where multiple runs were nearly busted last year. They were nearly overcome by Central Florida, winning 52-47 in the second round. The next outing they pulled away from a four-point game against Indiana with a 16-0 run out of the halftime break. And to cap off the regional in their backyard, they escaped a two-overtime thriller against NC State.

It upheld their run of Sweet 16s, which they last missed in 1993, and Elite Eights, which they last missed in 2006. Their 14 consecutive Final Fours is mind-boggling. But ending the title skid wasn’t there. A tight five-point win against the 2021 champion Stanford Cardinal lifted them to an unlikely championship tilt against South Carolina, which they lost to 64-49.

It’s been five seasons (and six years, including the canceled 2020 tournament) since UConn has won the title, an absurd statistical note showcasing how high the standards are for the Huskies. They last won in 2016, closing four consecutive titles with two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart.

Of the 40 NCAA Division I tournaments, UConn has won 11 of them. Tennessee has eight and no other program has more than three (Stanford, Baylor).