How Paige Bueckers injury impacts UConn and what it could mean for March

UConn sophomore Paige Bueckers has suffered a tibial plateau fracture in her left knee and is expected to be out six to eight weeks, the Huskies announced Tuesday. How does the injury — which occurred Sunday on a noncontact play with less than a minute remaining in a 73-54 victory over Notre Dame — affect the No. 2 Huskies going forward?

Bueckers’ absence will be felt in every part of the floor. The reigning consensus national Player of the Year leads UConn in scoring (21.2 PPG), minutes (36.4), assists (6.2), steals (2.7) and field goals made, and she ranks second on the team in rebounds (5.5).

Bueckers’ injury happened just four days after UConn announced that Azzi Fudd, the No. 1-ranked recruit for 2021, will miss at least two weeks due to a foot injury. In the preseason, the Huskies were expected to have unprecedented depth, but coach Geno Auriemma used just eight players Sunday.

Our panel — ESPN’s Katie Barnes, Charlie Creme and Mechelle Voepel — examines what changes Auriemma will make in Bueckers’ absence, which UConn players must step up while she’s out, the upcoming tests on the Huskies’ schedule and how their status in Bracketology might change.

UConn plays at Georgia Tech on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and faces UCLA in Newark, New Jersey, on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, ABC).

What adjustments will UConn make without Bueckers in the lineup?

Creme: Evina Westbrook will take over at point guard, and the redshirt senior is the type of player who could be all-conference or rank among the top 25 players in the country. That isn’t to say that Bueckers’ absence doesn’t change UConn’s approach considerably. Her loss is massive in both tangible production and what her presence means to her teammates and opposing defenses. But the job of running the team is at least going to a veteran with playmaking and scoring talents.

Sophomore Nika Muhl can also play the point, which would allow Westbrook to remain the impactful wing shooter that has largely been her role with the Huskies. However, Muhl doesn’t often look to create her own shot (she has attempted just 15 field goals this season), and she really isn’t a shooter or scorer (2.0 PPG). So if she’s at point, it allows opposing defenses to focus their attention more heavily on the other four players on the floor.

What complicates the Bueckers injury situation even further is that the UConn depth that we all spoke of in the preseason isn’t there anymore. Fudd is out at least a couple of weeks with a foot injury. Junior Aubrey Griffin still hasn’t played this season because of ankle and back problems. Freshman Saylor Poffenbarger transferred.

Auriemma only used eight players against Notre Dame on Sunday, and only seven healthy players are averaging double-digit minutes. The one piece of good news for UConn is that 6-foot-2 freshman guard Caroline Ducharme had what was easily her best college game against the Irish with 14 points in 14 minutes, shooting 3-for-5 on 3-pointers.

Voepel: Auriemma frequently has said, dating back to last season, that he doesn’t like the way the Huskies look when Bueckers isn’t on the court. Now he’s going to have to adjust to that, and so will his team.

We’re not going to try to come up with a bright side to this injury, but the fact remains that it will put other Huskies in the driver’s seat. Bueckers took over that role from day one as a freshman, and that was to be expected with her talent. But it also put an enormous weight on her, more so than any freshman in UConn history.

Auriemma will need to focus on everything he has seen as being an issue, but without having Bueckers as one of the answers. After the Huskies’ 74-49 victory over Seton Hall on Friday, he said, “We haven’t been good on offense the entire season. Maybe it will come. But right now, not good at all.”

Auriemma said one of the biggest problems was UConn not consistently hitting outside shots, which meant teams could cheat a bit and play more for the guards driving to the rim or dishing off.

Bueckers is both UConn’s best shooter and passer, so it’s time for Westbrook, Christyn Williams and Ducharme to lead the way from the perimeter, and for UConn to establish how good its post play can be, led by Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards.

Bueckers leads the Huskies in several major statistical categories. Where will her absence have the most impact?

Voepel: In short, everywhere. There is nothing UConn does that Bueckers is not a key factor in, both offensively and defensively. But let’s focus on ball control. Bueckers has 37 assists to just nine turnovers, and she also has 16 steals. She keeps UConn from wasting possessions and she forces other teams into wasting some of theirs.

In a lot of the games the Huskies play, this isn’t necessarily going to make a big difference because they are so much better than their opponents. But turnovers were a big factor in turning the tide of the Huskies’ loss to No. 1 South Carolina last month.

Bueckers is not just the Huskies’ best player; she leads them in hustle plays. After the Seton Hall win, she said, “I just want to set the tone. I just tried to really lay it all on the line tonight.”

The bottom line is, anyone physically talented enough to play Division I can make hustle plays. That’s about mindset, and UConn has always had that attitude as a team, wearing down even the best of opponents with execution, discipline, pace and hustle. If the Huskies focus on the best they can be at those four things even without Bueckers, they can still grow as a team without her.

Barnes: I agree with Voepel. Bueckers’ absence will be felt in everything the Huskies do. But I really think UConn is going to miss her minutes. As Charlie said up top, the depth that was expected on the Huskies’ bench simply hasn’t been there. If Fudd were healthy and playing at the level we know she’s capable of, this might be a slightly different discussion.

Removing Bueckers from the lineup (along with her 36.3 minutes per game) means that others have to literally fill that gap. And thus far, Auriemma hasn’t shown a tremendous amount of trust in his bench to play long stretches. He doesn’t have an option here, so those players will have a longer leash than they otherwise might have. That could be an opportunity for players like Muhl and Ducharme, who haven’t seen extended minutes on a consistent basis so far this season. But against high-quality opponents, it could also be a significant challenge.

How does UConn’s immediate schedule — at Georgia Tech on Thursday, vs. UCLA on Saturday and vs. No. 10 Louisville on Dec. 19 — present challenges?

Barnes: All three of these teams are nothing to sneeze at, and UConn has shown vulnerability even with Bueckers on the floor. Auriemma has bemoaned the Huskies’ offensive struggles throughout the beginning of the season. After UConn’s victory over Notre Dame, he said, “We’re playing too fast. We’re not letting things develop the way we need to to run an efficient offense.”

Auriemma expressed similar sentiments following the Huskies’ win over Seton Hall. Those struggles will likely only be exacerbated by Bueckers’ absence. At times, UConn’s offense has gotten stagnant, and not having Bueckers could allow a team like Georgia Tech to really take advantage of this vulnerability.

Voepel: Facing Georgia Tech should be a good test for the Huskies because of the Yellow Jackets’ strong defense. After Sunday’s 55-54 victory over Georgia, Georgia Tech is holding opponents to an average of 46.3 points per game. The Yellow Jackets have forced an average of 14.3 turnovers, and that’s an area where UConn could be challenged without Bueckers.

Creme: While Georgia Tech and UCLA were both ranked in the preseason and are projected to be NCAA tournament teams, neither is dynamic offensively. Even without their offensive engine and best scorer, the Huskies have enough perimeter scoring talent with Westbrook and Williams, and enough interior production from Nelson-Ododa and Edwards, to outscore the Yellow Jackets and Bruins. That might not happen, but UConn has what it needs to survive these next two games. Let’s not forget UConn’s roster has plenty of other former high school All-Americans who have been all-league performers in their college careers.

Beating Louisville might be another story, but the eight-day break between the UCLA and Louisville games gives the coaching staff plenty of time to evaluate how the Huskies performed against the Yellow Jackets and Bruins and make adjustments.

How does Bueckers being out six to eight weeks change the national championship race in women’s college basketball?

Voepel: UConn’s streak of Final Four appearances, which amazingly began in 2008, is in jeopardy with an extended absence from Bueckers. The Huskies will have a lot of time to get used to playing without her, and they can still be a very good team. We don’t know for sure that she will return, or how long it might take for her to get back to playing like her normal self.

My championship pick at the start of this season was South Carolina, and I’m staying with that. That said, with or without Bueckers, the Huskies still have the talent to beat anyone. But the odds of them getting to the last weekend of the NCAA tournament — especially with so many top teams having a lot of experience — still largely rest on Bueckers’ return. Admittedly, there could be other injuries on other teams that change the championship landscape. But this is the worst possible personnel loss for UConn, which needs Bueckers but will not — and should not — rush her return.

What’s the Bracketology impact of losing Bueckers?

Creme: UConn remains a No. 1 seed. The answer might be different if there were obvious choices to supplant the Huskies, but so many other highly regarded teams have struggled in the season’s first month and haven’t put up good enough résumé. Given the impact Bueckers has on everything UConn does, one might expect a drop-off with her sidelined. But Bracketology is a result-driven business, and nothing changes for now.

We will be watching to see how UConn plays in its next two games without Bueckers. If UConn gets wins over Georgia Tech and UCLA, and looks good doing it, the Huskies will stay on the No. 1 line. Anything less than that and UConn will fall if teams like Stanford, Louisville or Baylor, for example, take care of business in a week where none of them, based on the schedule, should be challenged.

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