The worst-case scenario for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team has happened. Sophomore guard Paige Bueckers, the best player in the country and reigning National Player of the Year, suffered an injury on Sunday that could be debilitating for the team. Although we don’t know the severity of the injury, the general consensus among the program is that the injury is not minor. Best case scenario, she has a hyperextended knee and a recovery time of 2-4 weeks. So, what would the team look like without Bueckers?
Let me preface this by noting that injuries are never good. If Bueckers is out for the season, it would be completely devastating. We could mark the year as something of a lost cause if the supporting cast continues to play as is. Or could the team end up becoming better when all is said and done?
Last year for the UConn men’s basketball team, now Charlotte Hornets guard James Bouknight completely carried the team early on. In his first five games, Bouknight averaged 23.2 points per game, while it felt like his teammates watched. Now-senior wing Tyrese Martin even admitted to this, noting “I feel like [not having a killer mindset] was my downfall last year. I feel like I would lose that when [Bouknight] was on the court with me and stuff like that.” Being forced to play without Bouknight and taking on that leadership role made him better for when the future lottery pick returned with his scoring increasing in regular season games, thus making the entire team better. The same should happen for the women’s basketball team.
Frequently, it felt like the mindset for the team was to watch Bueckers work her magic and hope it was enough to win games. The prime example of this came in their first game of the season against Arkansas, where Bueckers needed a career-high 34-point outing to beat an unranked team by just 15 points. An even better instance of this is their game against No. 1 South Carolina, where Bueckers just couldn’t hit a shot in the fourth quarter, and the rest of the Huskies were unable to produce in her shooting absence. If teams want to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament, they need others to step up when their star player isn’t shooting well, which naturally happens. Instead of stepping up against the Gamecocks, the Huskies scored three points and were outscored by 13 in the quarter, losing by 16.
The expectation for the Huskies this year is to win a championship. They should not be scoring just three points in a quarter, regardless of the opponent. Now, other players will be forced to step up with Bueckers out as well as freshman Azzi Fudd.
Fortunately, though, UConn has no shortage of talent. As talented as Bueckers is, her supporting cast should be reasonably close. Second-leading scorer Christyn Williams was the No. 1 overall recruit per ESPN in 2018. Third-leading scorer Evina Westbrook was the No. 2 recruit in 2017. Fourth-leading scorer Olivia Nelson-Ododa was ranked No. 5 in 2018. There is no shortage of talent in the locker room, with six healthy ESPN top-25 Huskies remaining. However, only Bueckers and Williams average double-figures. That is a lot of star-power averaging very few points per game. Let’s take a look at who should step up now and continue to contribute more when Bueckers returns.
Christyn Williams — This is a no-brainer. Williams is already a clear No. 2 option with Bueckers on the floor. Aside from a weak showing against Notre Dame on Sunday, she has been in double-figures every game this year. If the Huskies want to win big games with Bueckers out, Williams needs to contribute at a high level.
Evina Westbrook — When Westbrook has been on this season, she has really been on. However, she has been on as much as she has been off. She has three games scoring over 13, but also three games under six points. Her consistency has varied widely, which has generally been fine with Bueckers in the lineup. Without her though, she needs to be the definitive secondary player to Williams on a daily basis.
Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards—I’ll group these two bigs into one category, since really only one of them needs to be dominant for UConn to have success. Nelson-Ododa has performed poorer than many had hoped so far this season. But, she did have a really promising showing against Notre Dame, scoring 14 and grabbing 13 boards. It was her first game in double figures for rebounds and her second game in double figures for points. With a large scoring hole to fill, she will look to build on her momentum. As much as Nelson-Ododa has disappointed early, Edwards has fallen further short. She’s averaging just 7.5 points per game and 3.1 rebounds per game, which is not optimal for a player who was projected to be an elite big. Similar to Nelson-Ododa, this is a prime opportunity to pick up the slack and live up to expectations.
At the end of the day, a lot still depends on Bueckers’ knee. In an ideal world for the Huskies, Bueckers’ injury is not too severe and the team’s general skill will strengthen around her absence, giving the team more experience and a wider foundation in March.