Even UConn legends awed by Paige Bueckers' 'ridiculous' freshman season

Whenever Sue Bird is back on campus at UConn, great memories flood over her -- except when she steps inside the team's practice facility and sees the banners listing all the accomplishments of former Huskies. They stir up a different emotion.

"I feel like crap about myself," Bird says with a half-smile.

The most successful point guard in women's basketball history, Bird received WBCA All-American and national player of the year honors only once -- compared to the likes of Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi, who won those awards multiple times.

"I can only imagine when a freshman walks in there how they feel, in terms of the pressure," Bird said of playing for the 11-time national champions, "and wanting to live up to it."

Yet Huskies guard Paige Bueckers hasn't seemed fazed to be perpetually reminded of the glorious ghosts of UConn's past. In her standout freshman season, Bueckers leads the Huskies -- who are the No. 1 seed in the River Walk Region but will play at least the first two rounds without Geno Auriemma, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday -- in scoring, assists, steals and minutes played. From Feb. 3-8, she became the first UConn player to score 30 or more points in three consecutive games. On Feb. 27, she set the program's single-game assist record with 14.

Is it too early to ask if Bueckers, after playing 24 games and heading into her first NCAA tournament, is putting herself into the conversation of the Huskies' all-time best?

"She's proven she has what it takes to be one of the great players at UConn, to be one of the great players in women's college basketball," said ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, who in 1995 led the Huskies to their first national championship. "Now, we've got a couple of years to see it unfold. We have many more big moments in this young woman's career, which I expect she will live up to."

But a crucial part of the story is that Bueckers has carried a much bigger load her freshman season than Lobo and other Huskies predecessors. UConn -- which opens the NCAA tournament against 16th-seeded High Point on Sunday (ESPN/ESPN App, 8 p.m. ET) -- has no seniors; the roster includes seven freshmen.

Junior starters Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Evina Westbrook have continued to improve, especially in recent weeks. Accepting a freshman as a leader often isn't easy for upperclassmen, but they welcomed Bueckers and the other rookies with open arms.

"Her freshman year is so unlike anybody else's freshman year," said Bird, whose first season at UConn was limited to eight games because of an ACL injury. "It could be intimidating for a kid. She clearly doesn't seem intimidated."

Bueckers could do something only two freshmen have achieved in the NCAA women's basketball era: lead a national championship team in scoring for the season. Cheryl Miller (20.4 PPG) did it for USC in 1983, and Chamique Holdsclaw (16.2 PPG) for Tennessee in 1996. Both are on the short list of greatest players in women's basketball history.

Bueckers has navigated being the go-to player at a marquee program that generally hasn't needed freshmen to do that, in a pandemic-marred and unpredictable season like no other.

"I don't think there's been a time since I've been here that a freshman had to be in that position," said coach Geno Auriemma, who took over at UConn in 1985. "She's been given a unique opportunity. And she's taken advantage of it.

"A lot of it has to do with what position you play as well. So maybe some of the great guards that we've had come through here could have done something like this, had they been given that opportunity. We'll never know."

After seven years in the American Athletic Conference, UConn (24-1) returned to the Big East this season but again blew out league opponents. UConn hasn't lost to a conference opponent since March 2013, when Stewart was the UConn freshman in the spotlight.

"What she's done this year, in such a year of unknown, is actually ridiculous. She doesn't look like a freshman, that's for sure." Breanna Stewart on Paige Bueckers

She went on to set the highest bar: four NCAA titles with four most outstanding player awards at the Final Four. But even Stewart grins and says of Bueckers, "What she's done this year, in such a year of unknown, is actually ridiculous.

"She doesn't look like a freshman, that's for sure. Even when I look back on my freshman year, I had moments where it was like, 'Stewie is a freshman.' Paige has the confidence in leading her team as a freshman, which is crazy in itself."

Stewart is one of four former UConn players who have been MVP of the WNBA. Among UConn alumni, Bird and Moore lead the way with four WNBA titles apiece. Ten UConn players have been Olympians, all winning gold medals.

Twenty-three UConn players were WBCA All-Americans. Eight Huskies have won at least one national player of the year award -- some of them multiple times -- while seven have been most outstanding player at the Final Four.

That is the constellation of stars that Bueckers entered last fall. "There's a UConn level of expectations on everything, and they're always high," she said.

Players think they understand that when they're recruited, but it's a constant learning curve once they set foot on campus. Taurasi once said of her first season at UConn: "Knowing every practice was going to be hard, I would think about it the whole day. But you know what? That's what makes you."

Taurasi, Moore, Stewart, Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson all were part of Final Four teams their first season. None had as much weight on her shoulders for the team's success as Bueckers.

In Taurasi's freshman season (2000-01), she played with six older teammates who would be WNBA first-round draft picks. Moore in 2007-08 had three older teammates who were first-rounders.

As a freshman, Stewart had four older teammates on the 2012-13 roster who would be future first-round picks. Then Stewart was one of the UConn seniors who went 1-2-3 in the WNBA draft right after the 2016 championship season, when Collier and Samuelson were freshmen.

No disrespect to UConn's three junior starters, but Bueckers has been the bellwether. She has started 24 games -- she missed one with a sprained ankle -- averaging 19.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.3 steals in 35.8 minutes per game.

"What's being asked of her is different," Bird said. "And to see her step up to it and take that challenge and run with it is so exciting."

Bueckers has been given more responsibility, and with that has come a ton of playing time. As Auriemma said, we can't know for sure how past UConn stars would have produced as freshmen if they had the same minutes as Bueckers. But we can approximate.

Moore, who was No. 1 in ESPN.com's ranking last fall of the all-time best freshman seasons at UConn, averaged 17.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.1 APG in 2007-08. Moore is UConn's all-time leading scorer (3,036), with 100 more points her first season (678) than any UConn freshman. Moore, the only UConn four-time WBCA All-American, started 30 games a rookie and averaged 29.5 minutes.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, translating Moore's scoring stats to points per 40 minutes puts her atop the list of UConn freshmen (at least 500 minutes played), with an average of 24.2 as a rookie. In that calculation, Stewart is second at 23.3, Charde Houston third at 22.3 and Tina Charles fourth at 22.1. Bueckers, at 22.0 points per 40 minutes, would be fifth.

Taurasi started 14 times as a freshman and averaged 10.9 PPG in 24.0 minutes per game. Per 40 minutes, her scoring average would have been 18.3.

So the scoring part of Bueckers' performance as a freshman isn't unprecedented. But she's also UConn's go-to playmaker.

"You can see how smart a player she is," Samuelson said. "She puts herself in position to be better, but she also puts her teammates in position to be their best selves. Players that can make other players around them better, those are the one that become great."

Bird, the WNBA's all-time assists leader, loves Bueckers' anticipation.

"Some of her passes, it's less about the actual pass and more about the fact that she saw it in the moment," Bird said. "That speaks to instinct."

Bueckersmania in Connecticut hit a peak Feb. 8 after her 31 points in a victory against then-No. 1 South Carolina. UConn moved to the top spot in the next AP Top 25 poll, where the Huskies have stayed. Bueckers missed double-figure scoring in just one game, a victory at Tennessee on Jan. 21. But her nine points in Knoxville included a dagger 3-pointer in the final 30 seconds.

Bueckers' role this season might have evolved differently if Megan Walker, the Huskies' 2019-20 leading scorer, had stayed for her senior year rather than leave for the WNBA draft. Instead, there was a void for Bueckers to fill.

"She has the right temperament, and the right skill level, to help make our team better," Auriemma said. "If Paige had a different mindset, if she had a different temperament -- and still had all the skills that she has -- it may not work now.

"And she has enough composure to deal with all the off-the-court stuff that's out there these days."

That includes constant social media appraisals of Bueckers -- from Huskies fans who adore her to national fans who think she's overhyped because she's at UConn and that she hasn't played a tough enough schedule in the Big East.

"We didn't have to have those outside distractions," Cash said of her 1998-99 freshman season. "We could continue to get better in kind of our small bubble."

Bueckers hasn't played in front of a packed Gampel Pavilion at peak volume. She got some boos from the 3,553 fans allowed into Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena in January, but not like Taurasi heard from the 24,046 in attendance when she played there as a freshman in 2001.

Bueckers also hasn't had a game like Stewart did as a freshman against then-defending champion Baylor in 2013 in Hartford, Connecticut. Stewart came off the bench and played 7 minutes.

"I had zero points. I had a doughnut," said Stewart, able to chuckle about it now. "I remember feeling like I let my teammates down. If I had made the slightest of an impact, we could've potentially won that game. It put a lot of weight on my shoulders to make sure our seniors went out the right way."

After a third loss to Notre Dame that season, in the Big East tournament final, the switch fully flipped for Stewart and the Huskies. She was unstoppable in the 2013 NCAA tournament, including 29 points in the national semifinal win over Notre Dame, and 23 in the championship against Louisville.

"There was a lot going on, and obviously some of it was self-inflicted, saying I wanted to win four national championships," Stewart said of the pressure she felt throughout her freshman year.

Stewart looks back now with satisfaction, because she did exactly what she set out to do. Her advice to Bueckers going into the NCAA tournament: "Enjoy it. Take it serious, but still have fun."

But Bueckers, especially after this much acclaim, is going to be judged on championships. And if UConn wins the NCAA title this season, the next question will most certainly be, "What about next year?"