With the news that UConn sophomore guard Paige Bueckers had knee surgery Monday and is expected to have an eight-week recovery, her soonest possible return now projects as the second week of February.
Bueckers had an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear repaired in her left knee, so this has to be considered an optimistic projection. But if this timetable proves accurate, what will she miss and what will the No. 7 Huskies do in her absence?
Bueckers already was expected to miss two big nonconference games: vs. No. 6 Louisville on Sunday and at Oregon on Jan. 17. Now she also will likely miss the rest of the nonconference slate, at No. 1 South Carolina on Jan. 27 and the Feb. 6 matchup with Tennessee, which comes right at the end of Bueckers’ current estimated recovery.
UConn went 1-1 in its first two games without Bueckers, who was injured Dec. 5 in a victory over Notre Dame. UConn lost 57-44 to Georgia Tech on Dec. 9, snapping a 239-game winning streak against unranked opponents and prompting what felt like a postgame wake from coach Geno Auriemma, who said he didn’t foresee the Huskies being able to fix issues they were having.
Two days later, things seemed more upbeat after the Huskies’ second-half comeback in a 71-61 victory over UCLA. But the upcoming matchup with Louisville is expected to be more like Georgia Tech because of the Cardinals’ strong defense. The Huskies shot just 31 percent from the field against the Yellow Jackets.
That number went up to 41 percent against UCLA, with the Huskies’ three healthy guards — Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook and Caroline Ducharme — a combined 14-of-41 (34.1%) from the field.
The pressure is on those players with not just Bueckers but also guards Nika Mühl and Azzi Fudd out with injuries. Muhl, sidelined since Dec. 8, is expected to miss several weeks with a foot injury, and Fudd, out since Dec. 1, is expected to have the stress reaction in her foot reevaluated shortly. Limiting turnovers and hitting outside shots are two strengths we’ve long ago come to expect that UConn always has, but those things now can’t be taken for granted.
One of the biggest positives out of the UCLA victory was the performance of forward Dorka Juhász, the transfer from Ohio State who had her best game yet in a Huskies uniform. Her 16 points (on 5 of 5 shooting) and 16 rebounds were indicative of the ability of the two-time All-Big Ten first teamer.
If she can keep producing, it will make a big difference for UConn, and give support to fellow forwards Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards. The Huskies are also still awaiting the return of injured forward Aubrey Griffin.
Oregon has gone through its own struggles with injuries to key players, but we’ll see how healthy the Ducks are by mid-January. The Huskies lost 73-57 to South Carolina on Nov. 22 in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas — even with Bueckers playing. The Gamecocks have been without injured guard Destanni Henderson recently, but their depth is so good, they have continued to cruise at the top spot.
Bueckers hit a huge shot late in last year’s 67-61 victory at Tennessee, but she would need a bit of an accelerated healing period to be able to face the Lady Vols — who are tied at the No. 7 spot with UConn in this week’s AP poll — this year. That Feb. 6 matchup will be UConn’s last nonconference game, so whatever ground it doesn’t make up nationally by then in terms of NCAA tournament seeding might not be made up.
And nobody can just pencil in Big East victories for UConn, either. The Huskies haven’t lost to a conference opponent since they were in the old Big East in 2013. Could that streak come to an end during Bueckers’ absence?
Currently, DePaul (9-2), Marquette (8-2) and Creighton (6-2) are off to the best starts in the Big East, along with 6-2 UConn. The Huskies will face them all soon: They host Marquette on Dec. 29, travel to DePaul on Dec. 31 and host Creighton on Jan. 9.
If Bueckers does return in eight weeks, she would be back for the rematches with DePaul (Feb. 11) and Marquette (Feb. 13). In all, under that scenario she would return with seven games left on the regular-season schedule.
The Huskies will hope for the best in terms of Bueckers’ healing and return coming in time for her to still be a factor this season. But for the next eight weeks, they have to firmly establish who they are without her.