The Paige Bueckers-Azzi Fudd era at UConn is about to arrive and the rest of the college basketball world ought to watch out

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Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd are both über-talented basketball phenoms, gold medalists and the closest of friends off the court, but in reality, they couldn’t be more different.

Fudd, a shooting guard, is the quiet, reserved introvert and more of a thinker. Bueckers, meanwhile, is the outspoken point guard who, all in good fun, talks a big game, shows off her muscles and enjoys some good banter with her coach, Geno Auriemma.

“They’re like night and day,” said UConnassistant coach Morgan Valley, who works with the guards. “Oil and water. It’s hilarious.”

While their personalities diverge, their paths and their goals will intertwine for the next three seasons in Storrs, where they represent the brightest outlook for UConn women’s basketball in years.

Between Bueckers’ sensational freshman season, Fudd’s exceptional career to this point, and UConn’s track record of turning burgeoning stars into some of the most illustrious champions the sport has ever seen, it’s no shock that expectations for what three years of a Bueckers-Fudd backcourt could produce are through the roof.

Comparisons to the legendary tandems of Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles and Maya Moore are evoked left and right. All of which is, on one hand, entirely premature and arguably unfair given Fudd hasn’t yet logged a minute in a college game and Bueckers is still hunting her first championship.

Still, there’s no doubt Fudd and Bueckers are good. Really, really good. And if all goes according to plan, they will undoubtedly leave their marks on UConn women’s basketball and earn the program its first national title since 2016 and 12th overall.

At least.

“They just play and they work really hard,” said Valley, a former Husky (2000-04) who played with both Bird and Taurasi. “And I hope they get all the things that they desire out of this because I think they’re going to deserve it. When it’s all said and done, they’re going to put the work in and the time, and I definitely think they could be that next one-two punch.”

Another former Husky is more reserved.

“I think it’s too early to put those names on them,” said Carla Berube, who played at UConn 1993-97. She’s now the head coach at Princeton and won gold coaching Bueckers and Fudd at the 2017 FIBA Americas U16 Championships and 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup. “But they certainly have the potential to be a couple of the best to ever play there.”

The future is now as the Bueckers-Fudd duo make its UConn debut Sunday at 1 p.m., when the Huskies host Division II opponent Fort Hays State in an exhibition at Gampel Pavilion. The game will be live streamed on https://uconnhuskies.com/.

A promising one-two backcourt punch

One part of the equation, Bueckers, is already known. As the reigning national player of the year, she had statistically the best freshman campaign in UConn history and arguably one of the most impressive individual seasons the program has seen. She averaged 20.0 points on 52.4 percent shooting (46.4 percent on 3s), while adding 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game and coming through with some epic legend-making plays to beat the likes of Tennessee and then-No. 1 South Carolina.

“There is something in her game and the way she holds herself out there, the swag that she has,” said Berube. “She knows when she steps on the floor, she’s gonna be one of the best players out there, if not the best player, and I think that sets her apart. There’s no moment too big for her because she’s ready for everything. She’s put the time in, she’s put the work in and she knows she can make the plays.”

Berube believes Fudd — who was the first sophomore named national Gatorade player of the year and, like Bueckers, was the No. 1 recruit of her class —— will show that same poise at the collegiate level . But what lies ahead is an unknown right now. Fudd won’t be in the same position as Bueckers, who playing on a relatively young and inexperienced team was asked to shoulder much of the offensive load. The Huskies return their major contributors, including all five starters, from 2020-21, with multiple other newcomers eager to make a splash.

But since she arrived for summer session, Auriemma has specifically highlighted how Fudd’s fundamentals, shooting form and footwork are well beyond her years, and that she blends right in with the returners. Valley and Auriemma have described Fudd as a “thinker” (Fudd attributes that to her hating to mess up), but Valley notes that while most young players can’t function if they’re overthinking, Fudd still manages to play at a high level, learn the plays and make the right reads.

Auriemma indicated he wants her to be even more aggressive in hunting for shots. “To me, ‘is she going to make enough of them’ is not an issue, it’s ‘can we get her enough of them?’” he said. And perhaps under-appreciated about her game is her defense, which Auriemma has gone out of his way to compliment.

Berube credited Fudd’s impressive defense to her natural strength, great lateral quickness, use of her length and her work ethic: “The real part of being a great defender is how hard are you going to work, and there’s nothing that she does on the court that isn’t done hard and to the best of her ability.”

Match made in basketball heaven

When USA Basketball held U16 trials the spring of 2017, Fudd and Bueckers were two of the younger players there, and they still managed to stand out. It wasn’t just their talent, Berube said, more so the intangibles. Fudd thanked the staff after every session, something Berube had never experienced before. And both always stuck around after workouts to get more shots or play one-on-one.

They simply love the game, a quality Auriemma once said is “somewhat rare” in players these days.

“There’s so much joy they exude when they’re playing or when they’re shooting around or when they’re competing doing something,” Berube said. “It does not look like it’s ever work or a task. They just really genuinely love the game and love working at it and love getting better and love competing and being on a team.”

“They’re old school,” Valley added. “They just want to hoop and be really good.”

And even as they’ve become household names in the basketball world and could be some of the top beneficiaries of new name, image and likeness policies, teammates and coaches laud both Bueckers’ and Fudd’s selflessness, ability to stay grounded and how they treat their teammates.

“I’ve been around other young people who kind of think they’re larger than life because of their status on a team. But [Fudd and Bueckers] are just normal,” Valley said. “They don’t really like all that [attention] and they don’t really put themselves in those [situations]. They love their family. They love the gym. They love hanging out with their teammates. I think everyone else’s perception is they’re larger than life, and they don’t act like that at all.”

It’s that very humility that’s key for them to reach their potential. After all, talent alone won’t get them atop the sport’s pinnacle. They know that, and that’s why they wanted to be coached by Auriemma and his staff.

“[Auriemma] knows how to motivate people and to get the best out of them, and I think they know that and I think that’s why they came here,” Valley said. “They wanted those expectations a little bit. Why else would you come here if you didn’t want some of that? But the way he operates and does it is, to me, better than anyone else.”

And neither wants to hog the spotlight. As much as they tease and compete with each other about who is the better shooter, they’re more than happy to share their successes with their team, and each other.

“I think the best part is they both respect each other and what each other brings,” Valley said. “It’s not like they’re competing to outdo the other one. It’s like ‘alright, this is what you bring, this is what I bring, and let’s go do this.’ And I think that’s why Dee and Sue functioned so well together and Jen [Rizzotti] and Rebecca [Lobo] and all the great duos that have played here.”

Now comes the challenge for Auriemma as he tries to meld those strong individual games into team basketball and make it all work once the ball tips and the stakes are the highest the players have ever faced.

“How do you focus every single day at a really high level? How do you stay strong in the tightest of games with the most stress?” Berube said. “Of course, I think their games are going to keep progressing, but it’s also the approach every single day. How to be a great leader? How do you step outside of your own self and think of others and how to get your teammates motivated? There’s so much more to college basketball that you learn so much from CD [Chris Dailey] and from coach [Auriemma].”

Even with Fudd and Bueckers in tow, it’s unlikely the Huskies will waltz right into a string of multiple national championships. With more parity in the sport than ever before, runs reminiscent of Taurasi’s and Bird’s (four national titles in five years), Charles’ and Moore’s (back-to-back undefeated seasons) and Breanna Stewart and company (four straight championships) are most likely relics of the past.

But count out at your own peril a program like UConn and what can happen when a coach like Auriemma brings in two humble superstars eager to learn and do whatever it takes to win championships.

“When we signed that class with Asjha [Jones], Tamika [Williams], Swin [Cash] and Sue [Bird] and everybody said, ‘That’s amazing.’ Well, we were amazing,” Auriemma said last November, the day Fudd signed her letter of intent to play at UConn. “And when we signed Tina Charles and Maya Moore, ‘You guys are going to be amazing.’ Yeah, we were amazing. And when we signed Stewie and those guys, ‘You guys are going to be amazing.’ Yeah, we were amazing.

“So, yeah, there is a direct correlation between if you sign those guys, at Connecticut anyway, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be an amazing team for a couple of years. Yes, that is a great possibility. Our track record proves that.”

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com