How UConn’s Paige Bueckers is breaking college basketball
The clock dwindling, the Connecticut freshman broke open. A defender draped on her, she gathered the ball near the top of the key. A hand in her face, she let it fly.
Bueckers’s dagger bounced impossibly high off the back rim before falling in — her 11th, 12th and 13th consecutive points for the Huskies down the stretch, and her 29th, 30th and 31st for the game as U-Conn., ranked No. 2 nationally at the time, took down top-ranked South Carolina.
“There’s guys who lug the piano up onstage, and there’s guys who play the piano. And there’s a reason why the guy who plays the piano makes all the money — because that’s what people come to watch,” Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said afterward. “Paige is a good piano player.”
As the top-seeded Huskies (24-1) prepare to open a most unusual NCAA women’s tournament Sunday night against No. 16 seed High Point — in a controversial quarantine “bubble” in San Antonio, and without Auriemma, who tested positive for the coronavirus this past week — it is worth revisiting their hard-earned win against South Carolina, both for what it said about Bueckers, who, at 19, might already be the best player in the country, and about U-Conn.
First, about U-Conn.: No other program could call a four-year period featuring three Final Four appearances (and one tournament canceled by a global pandemic) a drought. But in Storrs, where success is measured solely by national titles, the term fits. Last spring, the Huskies, for the first time since 2008, graduated a senior class that failed to win an NCAA title.
All 10 of their championships this century have been won behind generational talents — Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart — who have 13 WNBA championships and 23 first-team all-WNBA nods. But none of them were asked to step in as freshmen and do what Bueckers has this season, for a Huskies team that has five other freshmen and no seniors.
She is averaging 35.7 minutes, nearly 14 more than Stewart did as a freshman, while scoring more points (19.7) than Moore (17.8) did and dishing out nearly twice as many assists (6.1) as Taurasi turned in (3.3).
“It’s been a long time since one player has had to carry the team as much as she’s had to in some of these games,” Auriemma said.
The South Carolina win was the most vivid example, proving that, when tested, U-Conn. will put the ball in Bueckers’s hands and ask her to win the game. Such tests are few and far between; U-Conn.’s 10 wins since Feb. 8, including three in the Big East tournament, have come by an average margin of 33 points. But she’s there if the Huskies need it.
“Coach put in my head as a [high school] senior how he was going to want me to step in and be a leader right away,” Bueckers said in a telephone interview. “That was kind of different — actually learning and going through the process of being a good leader for the team right away.”
Bueckers played all 45 minutes against South Carolina, scored the game’s final four points of regulation and all nine for the Huskies in overtime, single-handedly outscoring the nation’s No. 1 team 13-5 in that span. It was her third straight 30-point game, something no other player in U-Conn. history had done. Those last three points came with everyone in the arena knowing she would be taking that shot.
“How does the legend grow from here?” Monica McNutt, the color commentator on Fox Sports 1 that night, blurted as the shot fell through. That was followed by: “Wh-what?” And moments later, with an uneasy chuckle: “This is scary. This is very scary.”
A month later, McNutt, a former standout guard at Georgetown, still had trouble processing what she had seen.
“I will admit I was a little skeptical,” McNutt said in a telephone interview. “But, boy, did she shut me up. She’s as good as anyone I’ve seen at that age.”
Bueckers already has joined Moore as the only freshmen to be named the Big East freshman of the year and player of the year in the same season. She has a chance to become the only freshman in history to be named national player of the year. By at least one objective measure, the honor would be warranted: Her 11.0 win shares, per herhoopstats.com, lead the nation.
If there is a secret remaining with Bueckers — her fame underscored by an Instagram account that has more followers at the moment than those of Bird, Rudy Gobert and Katie Ledecky, among others — it lies in the question of how:
How does she coax so much production out of a 5-foot-11 frame so unsubstantial that her high school coach nicknamed her “Olive Oyl” after the gangly Popeye character?
How, at 19, can she carry a team that plays its home games beneath 11 national championship banners?
Put more simply: How is she so good?
The answer can be arrived at in a few ways.
Obviously, she is athletically gifted, with impressive speed, enough hops to grab the rim and remarkable hand-eye coordination. Though she stopped playing baseball after fourth grade, her father, Bob, said she made the league all-star team: “When she threw the ball, it was on a rope and hit you in the glove.”
She is also a self-described gym rat who has yet to come across someone who can outwork her.
“She lived two blocks from a gym, Lifetime Fitness, and when I’d call to pick her up for practice, she’d say, ‘Pick me up at Lifetime,’ ” recalled her AAU coach, Tara Starks. “And then, when practice was over, she’d want me to drop her off back at the gym.”
An incurable hoops junkie, she will watch NBA games if there are no college games on TV, and G League games if there are no NBA games. Asked if she ever detaches from basketball, she reacted with horror: “No. I can’t detach from family, and I can’t detach from basketball.”
And she is well-rounded: Though she considers herself a pass-first point guard (she’s tied for ninth in the country in assists per game), she is also shooting 53.9 percent from the field (tops among guards) and 47.4 percent from three-point range (third in the nation). McNutt compares her size and skills to Taurasi, arguably the best playmaker in WNBA history, and her handle to Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. “She’s in an elite class of playmakers,” McNutt said.
But the true source of Bueckers’s greatness might be her court vision. Perhaps better than anyone in recent memory, she reads the constantly shifting geometry of basketball — the formations, the defensive shifts, the openings, the passing lanes — and reacts to it soonest and fastest, but never too soon or too fast, with precisely the correct pass, move or shot.
“She’s just built with unbelievable vision, to where she sees the floor two or three passes in advance,” said Brian Cosgriff, who, as Bueckers’s coach at Hopkins High in Minnetonka, Minn., bestowed the “Olive Oyl” nickname upon her. “When she’s bringing the ball down the floor, she’s seeing and reading where everyone else is on the floor, and she’s going to make the right read 99 percent of the time. You’re just born with that. You can’t teach it. You can’t practice it.”
Bueckers agreed that it is a skill she was born with.
“The biggest thing I take pride in is making my teammates around me better,” she said, “and, yeah, court vision has a lot to do with it: Just seeing things before they play out and being two or three steps ahead.”
Cosgriff compares that aspect of Bueckers’s game to Magic Johnson. Others have invoked names such as Pete Maravich, Larry Bird, Draymond Green or even NFL legend Jim Brown — the latter comparison coming from the 66-year-old Auriemma.
“She takes her time,” Auriemma said. “. . . She’s like when Jim Brown used to run. When she gets the ball, she kind of [says]: ‘Should I [take] that hole, that one, that one? What’s the best decision for me right now?’ She waits until the absolute last minute, and nothing rushes her.”
Bueckers also has an intense competitiveness that can border on nasty. She has been known, on occasions when an opponent has gotten mouthy, to tell said opponent what is coming next — “I’m going to come off a screen to your right and hit a three in your face” — and then do it.
Lately, she has been hassling Auriemma about her playing time, complaining whenever he dares to take her out of a game. Late in one recent game, with the Huskies enjoying a comfortable lead and a teammate at the free throw line, she looked over at the scorer’s table, spotted a sub preparing to enter for her, and told the teammate to miss the free throw, so she might stay in.
“Then she came off and checked the stat sheet,” Auriemma recalled with feigned indignity, “and she goes, ‘You owe me two more minutes tomorrow, because I didn’t get to play my average [minutes].’ … I love her and everything, but there’s something not quite right about her.”
Auriemma, her teammates, anybody with the good sense to tune in and watch: We are all, in a way, Monica McNutt near the end of that South Carolina game, struggling to process what we are witnessing and asking ourselves a question that might be partially answered over the next few weeks:
How does the legend grow from here?