Paige Bueckers isn’t one to hide her emotions. On the pitch, it’s impossible not to know if she’s happy or furious, feeling cowardly or excited.
So last season, when she was on the UConn bench for 19 games, it was no surprise that Bueckers – who had never missed significant time in her basketball career – was struggling. comfortable and didn’t do a great job of hiding it. Her face told the story before she needed to tell it herself. Sidelined with a tibial plateau fracture resulting from a non-contact injury during the season, the benched Bueckers made his best impression as an “athlete looking to find the silver lining while looking sideways” so that the Huskies were struggling without her. Luckily for UConn, she’s a better basketball player than an actress.
His was a devastating loss for the Huskies and the sport, which last season was eager to back Bueckers, a player who had won nearly every National Player of the Year award the previous season as a rookie, a feat ever accomplished by a player. so young. She managed to return to the field in time to lead UConn to the national title game, where it fell short in South Carolina. The Gamecocks dominated this game, but it felt – quite simply – like a prelude to this season when the two powerhouses would find themselves on a collision course to meet again.
But on Wednesday, during downtime in sports, a time in the calendar when nothing is heard from a program or a player means everything goes according to plan, UConn announced that Bueckers tore his ACL. left Monday in a pickup game. The injury will require surgery on Friday, and although UConn has announced that she will miss the entire 2022-23 season, an updated schedule for her recovery will be released sometime after her surgery.
And it’s not hard to imagine how she feels, as she took to Instagram to tell everyone herself. She wrote: “It’s so crazy because you work so hard to get healthy, you feel stronger than ever, and you play your best basketball and in one sudden movement everything changes.” She called it a “nightmare”.
Win or not, fair or not, Bueckers is the most famous female college basketball player in the nation. Her place as such has earned her national headlines, magazine covers and a million Instagram followers in addition to NIL deals valued somewhere north of $1 million a year. Even casual fans or those who don’t watch women’s basketball (hell, even people who willingly shout/tweet “Nobody watches women’s basketball”) know about Bueckers. They associate it with UConn. They know she’s the kind of player who’s created magic in games.
And his injury is one that has an impact on the sport in general. She is moving the needle in women’s basketball despite playing only 42 games with the Huskies.
Perhaps the most bittersweet about it is how Bueckers’ goal in the offseason was to gain strength to help her weather the knocks of a season so she could stay injury-free after her knee problems last season.
“We are all devastated for Paige,” coach Geno Auriemma said in a statement. “She’s worked really hard to get stronger and healthier this offseason, and it’s an unfortunate setback.”
Bueckers chose to spend this offseason in Storrs, Conn. specifically so he could have access to the weight room. She had put on (and kept off) 10 pounds of good weight and rearranged her diet to make sure she was full throughout the day. Crisps had been replaced by protein smoothies, restaurant meals had been supplanted by cooking in his apartment. UConn strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy had praised Bueckers’ commitment to the gym. “She got stronger,” she says. “And I think she feels more confident, she looks more confident. She says she feels better on the pitch.
It was the kind of storylines you expected to see repeated thoroughly as Bueckers tore through the 2022-23 playoffs, tracing the successes of his NCAA Tournament performances to the roots of all that was done. by tiny off-season decisions. The types of scenarios that would play out ahead of the UConn-South Carolina rematch in Dallas at the end of the NCAA Tournament.
Now UConn will play the 2022-23 season without its biggest star on the court.
But it’s UConn, so the closet isn’t empty. Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 player in the 2021 class whose first season was hampered by a foot injury, will enter the spotlight more firmly. Nika Mühl, the feisty guard who also missed time last season due to a foot injury, will likely take on the main ball handling responsibilities. Caroline Ducharme, who raced more often last season due to the Bueckers knee injury, will be looking to build on her own freshman year. Dorka Juhász, who fractured and dislocated her wrist last March and opted out of her COVID-19 bonus season, hopes to make the most of her final year of college hoops.
This team will look different and its potential will be different as long as Bueckers stays on the bench – a place she, the sport and her fans so dearly wish she weren’t.
It’s possible we’ve seen the last of the Bueckers in a UConn uniform, his college-level leaving image being that of stepping off the field in Minneapolis last April as South Carolina celebrated at the halfway point. The junior will turn 22 in 2023, making her eligible for the WNBA Draft, which will be held in April. Few women’s basketball players have moved to the WNBA after just 42 college basketball games, but Bueckers isn’t like many women’s college basketball players.
It’s also possible that we only saw the beginning of her in a UConn uniform. With a potential medical redshirt this season and a bonus COVID-19 year starting in the 2020-21 season, Bueckers could still play three more years of college hoops if she chooses. She could enter the draft at 25. She could, if she wished, spend up to six years at Storrs.
But those will be decisions for a later date. For now, Bueckers will spend the rest of this offseason focusing on quiet, day-to-day progress. But it won’t look like what she thought it would look like a week ago. Instead of a direct path to a shot at a national title, his journey will now focus on walking, then running, then basketball…and then, maybe, winning a national championship.
It’s not hard to imagine how frustrated and devastated Bueckers might be right now, but it’s also a time when it’s not hard to imagine his fire. As she wrote on Instagram, “It’s going to be a hell of a comeback.”
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(Photo: G Fiume/Getty Images)