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UConn’s Curse Is Never-Ending

AUSTIN, TX - DECEMBER 03: Texas Longhorns guard Shaylee Gonzalez (2) drives past UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) during game featuring the Connecticut Huskies and Texas Longhorns on December 3, 2023, at the Moody Center in Austin, TX.
John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I spent the summer telling anyone who would listen to keep an eye out for UConn this season. Yes, yes, what a bold take! The little-known UConn women's basketball program is going to be good! Way to stick your neck out for the underdog! But all I meant is that the Huskies felt weirdly overlooked coming off their season from injury hell, which had ended with an Elite Eight loss to Ohio State. It was not even an encouraging loss: With a full-court press, the Buckeyes made every active member of the most successful women's basketball program in history look like they had never seen a basketball before. But now that South Carolina had graduated its accomplished senior class and would surely still be figuring things out this year, why not UConn?

On paper, no backcourt compared. Paige Bueckers was walking through that door. The No. 1 recruit in her class, who dazzled as a freshman in the 2020-21 season, would rejoin an otherwise-talented roster after missing all of last season with an ACL tear. Azzi Fudd and Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl had proven themselves stars in her absence. All they needed as a team was that extra gear, the oomph to take over games down the stretch. That is, the exact thing Bueckers had a knack for.

As the saying goes, when God sends one No. 1 recruit walking through that door, he opens a window and defenestrates another No. 1 recruit. Yesterday, after an ass-kicking at the hands of Texas freshman Madison Booker, already its third loss of the season, UConn found themselves ranked No. 17 in the AP poll, the program's lowest ranking in 30 years and its first time outside the top 15 since 2005. Just before Thanksgiving, the team announced that Fudd had torn her meniscus and ACL in practice and would miss the rest of the season. (She previously tore her MCL and ACL in the same knee as a high school sophomore.) The Bueckers-Fudd tandem, a backcourt starring an electric playmaker and the world's cleanest shooter, lives mostly in the realm of theory now. Through three overlapping injury-riddled seasons, the pair will have played just 17 games together, and an even smaller number with both at 100 percent. Caroline Ducharme, a junior who had already missed almost 20 games with head and neck issues in her first two seasons at UConn, has been sidelined indefinitely while she deals with neck spasms. If it seemed, when the Huskies literally didn't have enough healthy players to play a game last January, that the team had exhausted its supply of misfortune, such thinking was naïve. There is no regression to the good-luck mean happening here, just a continued plummet. Turns out UConn can get more cursed.

Geno Auriemma has worried often this year about the workload Bueckers has to carry as she returns from an injury herself. "Paige isn’t good when she’s got to, you know, take on guys one-against-two, one-against-three going in the lane," he said after the loss to Texas. Bueckers finished with just 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting in that game, and her team, working with an unusually young rotation, struggled to hang on to the ball. The Longhorns scored 36 points off of UConn's 21 turnovers.

Some of the adversity is self-inflicted, and admirably so. The Huskies play a tough non-conference schedule; all three of its losses (NC State, UCLA, Texas) are to top-five teams. My friend and hero, Mel Greenberg, inventor of the women's basketball poll, uses poll rankings and streaks as a proxy for program relevance, but it's hard to say if any of that applies here, where the struggles have not been with recruiting or transfers but with a never-ending run of fractures and soft tissue injuries. "I think they were all anticipating that this year was going to be different, that this year all that was going away and that was all behind us," said Auriemma, talking about the team's upperclassmen, who have only ever known injury woes. "And the response, I think, has been like a real punch in the gut." Last year, Dorka Juhasz, then a grad senior on the team, said she spent time reassuring the freshmen that UConn's injury struggles were not normal or representative of college basketball. "There's just so many crazy things happening, and what can you say?" she said. But they certainly seem like UConn's new normal. In a couple years, the freshmen Juhasz comforted might be telling their own class of freshmen to get used to it.

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