STORRS, Conn. — 2020-21 national player of the year Paige Bueckers may be out this upcoming season due to injury, but UConn women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma is still confident in his program’s ability to bring in another national title at some point in the future.
“We’re going to win another one,” Auriemma told reporters prior to the school’s “First Night” pep rally. “It’s just a matter of when. I don’t know when that is, but we’re going win another one. Sooner rather than later would be good for me.”
Auriemma, 68, led his squad to the national title game in April, the program’s first appearance since 2016, where it fell to South Carolina. It marked the first time UConn fell in the national championship game, having gone 11-0 in prior instances.
With reigning national player of the year Aliyah Boston back this season as a senior and three other returning starters in tow, the Gamecocks figure to be the favorites to win it all in 2022-23.
The Huskies were thought by many to be the best challenger to South Carolina before Bueckers went down with an ACL tear in early August. The 5-foot-11 point guard from Minnesota missed 19 games in 2021-22 with a tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear, also in her left knee, but returned in time to propel UConn to the national championship game behind a spellbinding performance in the Elite Eight against NC State.
While the UCLA men also have 11 titles, Auriemma is the only DI basketball coach with that many of his own; a 12th national title would be the best mark for any school. Aside from Bueckers’ absence, the Huskies — ranked No. 6 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early preseason rankings — will also be looking to fill the voids of their senior trio who were drafted into the WNBA: Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Evina Westbrook.
To help make up for the losses, UConn will rely upon the likes of returners Azzi Fudd, Caroline Ducharme, Aaliyah Edwards and Dorka Juhász, as well as newcomers Lou Lopez Sénéchal (transfer from Fairfield), Inês Bettencourt (freshman from Portugal), Ice Brady (freshman, No. 5 recruit per espnW) and Ayanna Patterson (freshman, No. 4 recruit).
“We’re just trying to keep everybody in their normal mode of how they play. But asking them that, you’re going to end up having to do a little more,” Auriemma said. “It’s those little things that you’re trying to impart on them, and they’ve been great. They’ve been really receptive and they’re embracing it.”
Auriemma said he has addressed Bueckers’ injury and its implications for the team a handful of times, but otherwise wants to keep it on the backburner as the squad looks to uphold the program’s typical standard of excellence even without their superstar. UConn had a taste of that last year with Bueckers’ extended absence; all but two regular contributors also missed time due to injury or illness at some point in the season, with Juhász suffering a season-ending wrist injury in the Elite Eight.
Albeit rather improbably, the Huskies still managed to beat two No. 1 seeds in the tournament (NC State and then Stanford in the national semifinal) to position themselves within one win of another national title.
“It was like that last year when we were going through those 20 games when Paige didn’t play: We’re a national championship contender until we get knocked out,” Auriemma said. “If and when that day comes, then we won’t be anymore. But today, October 14, we have as good a chance of winning a national championship as anybody else. And we’ll see where that takes us. Not as good a chance as we had in June, but we still have a chance.”
Auriemma was asked whether with distance from his team’s unprecedented run of four straight titles from 2013-16 — which featured two undefeated seasons and a 111-game win streak — he has greater appreciation for it.
“I think the further you get away from [the 2013-2016 run], the more you realize it was a fantasy land that we created,” Auriemma said. “When you’re young, you think ‘I’ll be in this game four years in a row,’ and there’s no guarantee you will be, so you have to maximize every opportunity that you get. So now I really appreciate the opportunities that we get. We’ve been to what, [a record] 14 in a row Final Fours?… it’s hard as hell to get there, much less how hard it is to win it.”
Bueckers, a junior, has already announced she intends to return for 2023-24. By redshirting this season, she could pursue three seasons of eligibility upon her return, thanks to the “freebie” COVID-19 year granted to all student athletes amid the pandemic in 2020-21.
UConn will learn a lot about its Bueckers-less squad early on: It hosts Texas, NC State and Princeton and travels to Notre Dame and Maryland within the first month of the season, also facing Duke and possibly Iowa in the Phil Knight Legacy Tournament. Later on, it’ll take on Tennessee Jan. 26 in Knoxville and then will host South Carolina Feb. 5 in Hartford.