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March Madness: How far can UConn go without Azzi Fudd?

UConn has played most of its season without either Paige Bueckers or Azzi Fudd (second and third from left). (G Fiume/Getty Images)

In the midst of an injury-riddled season, the No. 5 UConn Huskies have managed to stretch their limited lineup all the way to a 20-2 record.

Their latest win came over NCAA scoring leader Maddy Siegrist and No. 19 Villanova. The Huskies ended the contest on a 20-13 run in the fourth quarter to secure a 63-58 victory, yet another against-all-odds performance from a team that has grown accustomed to overcoming adversity.

The words “UConn” and “adversity” rarely are used together, as the Huskies historically have been the most dominant team in women’s college basketball. But this season is different, as they play without stars Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd and deal with a plethora of other injuries.

And yet UConn keeps winning. Its two losses came at the hands of No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 8 Maryland, both respectable defeats even with a full roster. But as the Huskies navigate conference play and inch closer to March, a question arises: Can they keep it up?

While Bueckers is out for the season, there’s hope for Fudd to make a return. Still, UConn certainly will be cautious with the sophomore guard.

Fudd missed a month of action after injuring her knee in UConn’s Dec. 4 loss to Notre Dame. And then, after playing just one full game, she reaggravated the injury against Georgetown on Jan. 15. There is no timetable for the guard’s return, and she won’t be putting weight on her knee until the start of February.

Without Fudd, and with Caroline Ducharme and other players dealing with their own injuries, the Huskies have a numbers problem. Against Villanova, coach Geno Auriemma rolled with a six-player rotation, in which Aaliyah Edwards, Dorka Juhász and Nika Muhl played all 40 minutes. Lou Lopez Sénéchal and Aubrey Griffin were on the court for 38 and 37 minutes, respectively.

No matter how talented the available Huskies are, burnout is definitely a concern. With a small rotation, it’s possible they run out of steam, particularly in the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament, when games are played in a shorter window. Having three players put in 40 minutes a game with limited rest in between contests is not sustainable.

Another issue that may come into play is personnel. So far, the Huskies have met nearly every challenge they’ve come across. A lot of that has come down to the play of Edwards and Lopez Sénéchal. The pair are the only players on UConn’s roster that have played in all 22 games so far this season, and they’ve been reliable offensive forces.

Edawrds’ 17.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game have put her in Player of the Year conversations, while Lopez Sénéchal’s ability to hit big shots has Auriemma preaching on her potential as a professional, either in the WNBA or overseas. The guard is averaging 16.8 points per game and shooting 49% from the 3-point line.

But what happens when one of its dynamic duo is shut down? Well, against Villanova, Lopez Sénéchal was held in check with just 6 points – the first time all season the Fairfield transfer has scored less than 10 points in a game. Griffin and Juhász picked up the slack with 19 and 16 points, respectively, seemingly answering that question.

Yet as long as Fudd is sidelined, UConn will have one big missing piece: a player who can create their own shot. In March, that’s something the Huskies will need.

Edwards is capable of scoring on most anyone in the paint, but she needs someone to feed her the ball. Lopez Sénéchal is in the upper echelon of shooters, but she doesn’t break down defenders off the dribble. Fudd can put the ball on the floor and force her defender into mistakes, and against elite defensive teams (the kind you see in March), such a player can provide a needed edge.

It’s hard to count the Huskies out from a deep postseason run simply because at every turn, and despite every hardship, they’ve delivered. Even so, the UConn faithful would likely feel more confident with Fudd on the floor. And until her return is confirmed, the questions will remain.