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As the Big East announced its preseason conference awards Tuesday, which the UConn women’s basketball team dominated, coach Geno Auriemma sent his players a quote from Milwaukee Bucks champion Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“[He was] talking about all the awards he’s gotten and all the accolades that he’s gotten and how they mean nothing to him,” Auriemma said to media at Madison Square Garden during Big East media day. “He just wants to get better. Because ‘I know if I get better, all the other stuff is coming.’”
No one on Auriemma’s team, which was ranked No. 1 in the conference preseason poll, exemplifies that more than the unanimous Big East preseason player of the year Paige Bueckers, who last season as a freshman took home every major national award for which she was eligible:
“She knows if she just keeps getting better every day,” Auriemma said, “anything she’s ever wanted is going to be there.”
So what does Bueckers want heading into the 2021-22 campaign, a year after she skyrocketed into basketball fame as a freshman sensation? It has less to do with anything individually and everything to do with winning a national championship.
“The only thing I’m thinking about from last season was the fact that we came up short,” Bueckers said, surrounded by local and national reporters for the first time since taking the court as a Husky. “So I think that’s been motivating me all summer and still motivating us all now.”
But as she goes about the goal, she’ll have more eyes on her than ever before, and according to Auriemma, more internal pressure than she experienced last season despite UConn likely having a deeper team.
“I think the pressure that she puts on herself this year is going to be even greater than it was last year,” he said. “I know that. I can see it in practice already.”
Auriemma said that Bueckers, the No. 1 recruit of the Class of 2020 and someone people have described as potentially “generational,” is the sort of kid who’s tired of the attention before it even comes. Despite being a freshman last year, the guard from Hopkins, Minn., was asked to carry a heavy load, and largely rose to the occasion in the process. She averaged 20.0 points (the best freshman scoring average in UConn history), 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 steals last season on her way to becoming a first-team All-American.
Though Bueckers wasn’t able to work on her game as much as she wanted to this summer due to an April ankle surgery, she compensated by getting in the weight room, where Auriemma has seen a noticeable growth. Bueckers knows to help the Huskies win their first national title since 2016 the improvement will have to be in the details more than anything else.
“She’s a little more aggressive, a little more assertive, a little more sure of herself and what her role or status is and what her relationship is with teammates,” Auriemma said. “I think she’s a little more comfortable as you would expect than she was last year.”
Bueckers isn’t expected to do everything alone this year. After all, four other Huskies took home conference recognition. Seniors Christyn Williams (unanimously) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, along with sophomore Aaliyah Edwards, were tabbed to the preseason all-conference team, while freshman Azzi Fudd was unanimously selected as preseason freshman of the year.
In a similar mold to Bueckers, Fudd (a 5-11 guard from Arlington, Va.) had been considered an über-talented prospect well before she signed with UConn last November. The former No. 1 overall recruit became the first sophomore to win Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2019, and has gone viral for her killer shooting where she went toe-to-toe with Steph Curry in his S30 Select Camp.
Bueckers says she leaned on Auriemma and her teammate when the pressure got too much last year. But she and Fudd, who have been close friends for years, may understand the combination of internal pressure and external expectations they face other more than anyone else.
“For me it was important to find somebody to talk to about that stuff, so me being that person for her as well, I think that’s very important, just being able to be there when she needs to vent or when the pressure is getting too much,” Bueckers said.
That’ll only become more important once Fudd, Bueckers and the rest of the Huskies take the court, with their regular season kicking off Nov. 14 versus Arkansas, and the basketball world turns its eyes to Storrs as their hunt for a national title begins.
“I think you can talk about it, you can share ideas and you can share experiences with other people, but until you actually go through it, I don’t know that anyone really can prepare you for what‘s going to happen,” Auriemma said. “In our program, I think kids that are good get probably unfairly exalted and kids that don’t live up to an expectation that’s really high for them get something other than that. But that’s part of coming to school here and part of playing in our program. It’s not for everyone but for those people that can meet those expectations, it’s the most rewarding place in America to play.”
Big East Preseason Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Poll
1. UConn (10) 100
2. DePaul (1) 90
3. Seton Hall 80
4. Marquette 74
5. Villanova 62
6. Creighton 54
7. St. John’s 51
8. Providence 32
9. Georgetown 27
10. Xavier 18
11. Butler 17
Big East Preseason Player of the Year
Paige Bueckers, UConn, So., G*
Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year
Azzi Fudd, UConn, Fr., G*
Preseason All-Big East Team
Christyn Williams, UConn, Sr., G*
Olivia Nelson-Ododa, UConn, Sr., F
Aailyah Edwards, UConn, So., F
Sonya Morris, DePaul, Sr., G*
Lexi Held, DePaul, Sr., G
Lauren Van Kleunen, Marquette, Grad., F
Leilani Correa, St. John’s, Jr., G*
Andra Espinoza-Hunter, Seton Hall, Grad., G/F
Lauren Park-Lane, Seton Hall, Jr., G*
Maddy Siegrist, Villanova, Jr., F*
Alexa Philippou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org