In one of her recent Instagram stories, injured UConn star Paige Bueckers walked into a team photo shoot carrying a whistle and a clipboard and calling herself “Coach P,” much to the amusement of her teammates.
For the former National Player of the Year, who will miss the 2022-23 season with a torn ACL in her left knee, the idea of becoming a student-coach for the year is only half tongue-in-cheek.
“I’m head coach,” Bueckers told reporters recently. “Coach let me take his spot. No, I’m just kidding. But I’m the players’ coach, I’m going to be the one they can talk to, the one that’s going to push them, also the one they can rely on when they need support. I’m definitely taking that job as a coach but I’m not sure which job I’m taking.”
The good news for UConn fans is that Bueckers also vowed to return to college next year, rather than declaring, as she could, for the WNBA draft. The junior turns 21 on Thursday and will be 22 in 2023, making her eligible.
“I’m not leaving, that is not any question,” Bueckers said. “I’m not thinking too far ahead, but I will be playing college basketball again.”
In the meantime, coach Geno Auriemma is happy that Bueckers plans to stay engaged with the sixth-ranked Huskies.
“I’m anxious to have her learn more about the game by doing those things, by sitting in practice and watching from a coach’s eyes instead of a player’s eyes,” Auriemma said. “And she’ll be the same Paige she’s always been, though, and she’ll get carried away, and she’ll want to do this, and she’ll want to do that, and she’ll want to have input in this.”
Bueckers missed 19 games last season after suffering a left knee tibia plateau fracture and torn meniscus in early December. She returned to lead the Huskies to the Final Four, where the Huskies lost to South Carolina in the championship game in Minneapolis, 10 miles from her Minnesota hometown.
She finished the season averaging 14.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game, showing how much she means to the team in a 27-point effort against North Carolina State that sent the Huskies to their 14th straight Final Four.
Auriemma has said that to make it 15 in a row and compete for a national title, he will need sophomore Azzi Fudd, a former national high school player of the year, to step into a starring role. He is also expecting big things from junior Nika Muhl, who will take the point guard duties, and 6-foot-5 graduate student Dorka Juhász, who missed the Final Four last year with a broken wrist.
Junior forward Aubrey Griffin is also coming back from a back injury that kept her sidelined all of last year. The Huskies have another top recruiting class coming in, led by 6-3 forward Ice Brady.
Auriemma understands that nobody outside the program is feeling sorry that the Huskies will be without Bueckers this season. Unlike last season, the Huskies have had the offseason to figure out who will be responsible for making up the lost points, assists and rebounds.
“It’s good for the players because they have to look around the room and say, OK, our goals can’t change, our expectations can’t change, but maybe the way we go about it has to change,” Auriemma said.
And while they are certain to miss their best player in Bueckers, her teammates said they also look forward to having “Coach P” on the bench.
“It’s different hearing things from coaches and hearing things from one of the players, so I think that will definitely be a big help,” Fudd said.
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