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What Paige Bueckers’ season-ending injury means for UConn

Paige Bueckers plans to return to the Huskies for 2023-24 season. (Greg Fiume/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Less than an hour after the news of Paige Bueckers’ season-ending injury broke Wednesday, the name “Paige” was already trending on Twitter.

Fans, coaches and players offered their support to the UConn star after the program announced the rising junior had torn her ACL during a pick-up basketball game and would miss the 2022-23 season in its entirety.

Social media made it abundantly clear in a matter of minutes just how important Bueckers is to the game as a whole.

But of course, no one will miss her as much as the Huskies.

“We’re all devastated for Paige,” head coach Geno Auriemma said in a statement. “She’s worked really hard to get stronger and healthier this offseason, and this is an unfortunate setback. Paige is obviously an amazing basketball player but she’s a better person and teammate and it’s really unfortunate that this has happened to her. We’ll miss her presence on the court, but she’ll do everything she can to still lead and help her teammates this season. Our program will support Paige through her healing process to help her come back better and stronger.”

Last season provided an example of the stark contrast between UConn with Bueckers and UConn without Bueckers. And this time around, the Huskies don’t have experienced players like Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa or Evina Westbrook to help soften the blow.

When Bueckers injured her knee during a win over Notre Dame on Dec. 5, 2021, the Huskies sputtered, losing to Georgia Tech, Louisville, Oregon and Villanova. The loss to the Wildcats was UConn’s first conference defeat since 2013. When Bueckers returned in February, the Huskies surprised many by advancing all the way to the national championship game, where they lost to South Carolina, 64-49.

Losing Bueckers in the middle of the season proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, UConn suffered uncharacteristic losses without the dynamic guard. But on the other, the rest of the team got stronger in her absence, and that depth was a useful tool down the stretch of the NCAA Tournament.

This time, things are different. The Huskies have more time to make adjustments, but their personnel is limited and young.

UConn returns junior forward Aaliyah Edwards, defensive stopper Nika Mühl, second-year grad student Dorka Juhász and 2021 No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd.

Sophomore Caroline Ducharme, the No. 5 recruit in her class, also returns after making the most of an increased role as the 2021-22 season progressed.

From there, the roster consists of two freshmen, Ice Brady and Ayanna Patterson; sophomore Amari DeBerry, who averaged 6.2 minutes a game last season; Fairfield grad transfer Lou Lopez Senechal; and redshirt junior Aubrey Griffin, who missed last season with a back injury.

That’s a lot of unknowns. UConn doesn’t generally go through growing pains like other teams do to start seasons, but the perennial powerhouse is entering a new era. Beyond established players like Fudd, Edwards and Juhász, the team will rely on others taking big jumps in 2022-23. That list of potential breakout players starts with Ducharme and Griffin.

Ducharme played consistent minutes last season when Bueckers went down with the knee injury, posting four 20-plus point games, including a career-high 28 against St. John’s in January. By season’s end, Ducharme looked confident for the Huskies, averaging 9.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. The Massachusetts native came to UConn as a capable scorer, finishing her high school career with 2,092 points despite missing most of her freshman and sophomore seasons due to injury.

“She’s not afraid of the moments,” Auriemma told reporters after Ducharme’s performance against St. John’s. “She just plays. A silver lining, right? Who would have thought that she’d be doing this? Nobody gets hurt, everything stays the way it is, maybe she doesn’t get an opportunity to play this many minutes. We knew she was good, but we found out that she’s really, really good.”

The Huskies will need her to be even better this season.

Griffin is more of an unknown after undergoing back surgery in January and missing the entire 2021-22 season, but she’s also a versatile player with big upside. A five-star recruit in 2019, the athletic 6-foot-1 wing dominated during her senior year at Ossining Senior High School, averaging 28.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.

Griffin played in all 32 games as a freshman at UConn, coming off the bench to average 6.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. As a sophomore, she posted similar numbers while also making her way into the starting lineup five times.

Meanwhile, Fudd, Edwards and Juhász — the three returners who played the most minutes last season — will serve as the team’s core. Fudd, who was named to the 2022 Big East All-Freshman Team, will likely be called upon to lead the Huskies offensively, and her average of 12.1 points per game should increase.

She’s also the most obvious choice to take over at point guard.

Bueckers boasted a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio last year and spent significant time with the ball in her hands. Her absence in the point guard spot may be where the Huskies miss her most.

Last season, Westbrook and Williams took on those duties with Bueckers out, with Mühl serving as another alternative. But the 2022 Big East Defensive Player of the Year is more effective on the other end of the court, so Auriemma likely won’t turn to her regularly unless he has no other options.

UConn will also need to find an on-court leader to take over for Bueckers, but don’t expect her to go silent. Just like last season, she’ll continue to be vocal and lead her team from the sideline. That’s one sure thing in a season of unknowns.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.