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Will Paige Bueckers Save UCONN?

Minneapolis, MN March 16: Hopkins guard Paige Bueckers (1) was defended by Stillwater guard Sara Scalia (14) in the second half. (Photo by Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

For the first time since the departure of the 2004 recruiting class, UConn basketball will graduate a senior class that has never won a national championship. Following three straight trips to the Final Four, UConn’s season, like everyone else’s, was cut short with the cancellation of the NCAA tournament.

When Crystal Dangerfield, the nation’s fourth-ranked recruit, teamed up with Molly Bent and Kyla Irwin to sign with Geno Auriemma and UConn back in 2016, the class ranked 14th in the country. (For reference, both UConn’s 2015 and 2017 classes ranked third.) UConn had won the last four national titles and 75 consecutive games when Dangerfield, Bent and Irwin showed up at Gampel Pavilion. (The similarity to the group that arrived in the fall of 2004 is poignant; at that time, UConn was coming off three consecutive national championships.)

Following the departure of that trophy-less 2004 class in 2008, UConn claimed six of the next eight national championships, as first Maya Moore and then Breanna Stewart carried the Huskies to multiple undefeated seasons. Now, UConn fans — and UConn fans alone — are hoping another top recruit can bring them back to dominance.

“You know how many religions there are in the world?” Auriemma recently joked. “The one religion in women’s college basketball is praying that UConn loses.”

The impending arrival of Paige Bueckers should trigger an upswing in prayers from those devoted to hating the Huskies. The top ranked recruit in her class and the Gatorade National Player of the Year is already being looked at as the future of the program, if not the sport altogether.

And it’s not just fans who are riding the hype. According to UConn coach Geno Auriemma, by the end of next year, “I am going to be saying, ‘You know what? We wouldn’t have won the national championship without her.’”

Yup, Bueckers is that good. Her profile on espnW’s Hoopgurlz makes it sound like she was created in a basketball lab: a “skilled combo-guard” who “delivers offensive production off the dribble,” Bueckers is “effortless and poised in the back court,” “finds the rim with regularity,” and brings a “dose of swagger” and “scorer’s mentality” to the backcourt.

She’s already an internet celebrity, with dozens of YouTube videos documenting her high school exploits. And with over 400,000 followers on Instagram, she’s a superstar built for the digital age.

Auriemma has said that the only player to ever show up to the first day of practice as a polished player was Maya Moore. Even Breanna Stewart struggled at times in her first season. Of course, the Breanna Stewart Era ended with four national championships and an unworldly 151-5 record — but four of those losses came in her freshman season.

Bueckers will have her struggles as well, but like Stewart, we shouldn’t expect them to last.

“By herself, she can’t win anything,” Auriemma has said. “But with the people I think we are going to surround her with, I think we can do great things.”

Bueckers will be joined by 21st- and 26th- ranked Aaliyah Edwards and Mir McLean, both wings, while Auriemma will also welcome Nika Muhl and Piath Gabriel, a pair of international recruits.

Stewart was not without help herself. Moriah Jefferson was the second-ranked player in the class, and the third member was five-star Morgan Tuck. As you might imagine, the class was ranked first overall, and they graduated as the winningest group in college basketball history, the only recruiting class to ever win four national titles.

In that 2016 title run, UConn throttled Mississippi State 98-38 in the NCAA Tournament, prompting a heated and pointless national discussion about whether UConn’s dominance was bad for the sport.

The answer was always no, but whatever the case, UConn has been significantly less dominant since that tournament run. A year after that 98-38 win, Mississippi State beat UConn in overtime to advance to the national championship game. UConn has subsequently stalled in the Final Four each of the last three seasons.

On one hand, UConn is leaving the American Athletic Conference with a perfect 139-0 record (they’ll rejoin the Big East next year). On the other, this is UConn: the only wins that matter are championships, and there haven’t been any of those since 2016. This year, all three of UConn’s losses came at the hands of would-be first seeds, putting into doubt their chances of breaking their dry spell, even if the tournament hadn’t been cancelled. None of the losses were especially close, with a 74-56 defeat to Oregon marking the program’s worst home defeat in 15 years.

Is UConn in a rut? Not by any objective standard (they’re 135-8 over the last four years, after all). But the Huskies have clearly been falling short of their own expectations. Enter Paige Bueckers.

Even with the expected freshman year growing pains, there are two specific aspects of Bueckers’ play that should translate to the collegiate game right away: her guard play and her swagger.

At the end of the 2016 season, when Stewart celebrated a 38-0 record, her team led all 344 Division I programs in 11 major statistical categories and were top-10 in nine more. Most importantly, UConn paced the country in assists, assists per game and assist to turnover ratio.

Bueckers has incredible vision and the talent to put the ball where she wants it. In high school, she has averaged 9.4 assists per game, good for fifth in the country, and has led Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota to a 30-0 record. She’ll make an already talented UConn squad surrounding her even better.

The impact of Bueckers’ confidence is more difficult to quantify. It can be seen in a video posted to her own Instagram, in which Bueckers confidently says that her defender “can’t guard me.” It can be seen in her full-court passes and her pull-up jumpers. It can be seen in her decision to sign with UConn, the most storied program in the sport.

No one player can guarantee a national championship. But with Auriemma, who turned 66 in March, saying he could see himself coaching another five years, UConn is on a path to regain their throne. The success of South Carolina in year one with their top-ranked freshman class speaks to the impact of a strong, cohesive group, no matter their age.

UConn is used to winning. For most of this decade, that is all they have done. Next year, Bueckers will see if she can inaugurate a new decade as successful as the last.