STORRS, Conn. -- UConn star Paige Bueckers, the 2020-21 national player of the year, is "very close" to being fully cleared as she makes her way back from an August 2022 ACL tear that sidelined her for her entire junior season.
"I'm feeling really good," Bueckers told reporters at UConn on Wednesday. "I'm just past the 10-month mark [following the injury and surgery]. So I'm definitely starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and the finishing mark. But there's a long way to go. ACL recoveries take a long time.
Bueckers said she's playing 3-on-3, 2-on-2 and 1-on-1 in individual and team workouts but hasn't been cleared for 5-on-5 work, which she called "the last little benchmark to be fully cleared."
"But I'm in no rush," Bueckers said. "Our whole team and staff is in no rush. We have a lot of time."
Entering her senior season, Bueckers is making her way back from her second significant knee injury in two years. After winning a slew of individual national accolades as a freshman in her only fully healthy collegiate season, she appeared in just 17 games as sophomore after suffering a lateral meniscus tear and tibial plateau fracture, also in her left knee, mid-season.
Bueckers has guided the Huskies to two Final Fours, including the 2022 national title game, where they fell to South Carolina. This past season with Bueckers on the sideline, UConn was stunned by Ohio State in the Sweet 16, snapping the program's unparalleled 14-season streak of consecutive Final Four appearances.
Bueckers wasn't sure exactly what the plan would be for UConn's upcoming European tour in Croatia, Slovenia and Italy in August, adding she "probably could" play in exhibition games there, but she and the team will make a decision after assessing all the pros and cons.
Bueckers said she feels even stronger and in better shape than she was before her injuries, and she is taking better care of her body. She said she knows that it might take some time to get back into full swing on the court, but that won't stop her from having high expectations for herself.
"I want to be the type of player that I was before, pre-injury, but better," Bueckers said. "I have those expectations for myself, so that's where I want to be."
Even outside of Bueckers, the Huskies were devastated by injuries the past two seasons. Fellow former No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd missed time as a freshman with a foot issue and was sidelined for two separate stints as a sophomore with knee injuries, playing 15 games in all. She came back in time for the Big East and NCAA tournaments but wasn't the version of herself that took the country by storm to begin the season.
"I'm proud of myself for coming back. But when things got harder at the end of the season, I'm not proud of how I responded," Fudd said. "So I think going into next year, that's something that I'll fix. I think holding each other accountable is going to be a big part of our team this upcoming year and so I know that, say my response isn't great, they're going to be there to let me know that I need to fix it."
Having Bueckers and Fudd in the backcourt has drawn plenty of hype as UConn fans have eyed winning the program's first championship since 2016, and 12th overall. Instead, the star duo has played in only 15 games together across two seasons.
After the NCAA tournament, Fudd worked on rehabbing her knee, but she's now out of the brace that she wore to end the season and is nearing full recovery. She has been a full-go during team workouts this month and hopes that no longer being in the brace will help her get her fast-twitch response back.
Fudd said the Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State is still fresh in her mind heading into the 2023-24 campaign. She finished with 14 points on 6-of-17 shooting that game, including 2-for-9 from 3-point range, and had four of UConn's 25 turnovers.
"I still have that feeling of my frustration and anger and all that from the last game," Fudd said. "That still, like, sits with me when I'm on the court. ... And I think that we're all in a different space where we know what we need to do, we know how to hold each other accountable, how we need to prepare to not let that stuff happen again. I think I can speak for the whole team and say that I don't want to feel that ever again."
UConn is No. 2 in ESPN's Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings, replaced at the top spot by defending champion LSU. The Tigers bring back Final Four Most Outstanding Player Angel Reese and struck gold in the transfer portal by bringing in Louisville's Hailey Van Lith and DePaul's Aneesah Morrow, spurring talk of emerging as a super team.
Bueckers, who along with Fudd is no stranger to facing high expectations, said the Tigers "have the right to talk, and they have the means to back it up because they won, and we haven't won that yet."
"I think we're more trying to earn our respect on the court, and we have to prove it because we haven't really proved anything yet, since I've been here," Bueckers said. "So I think we're just more worried about ourselves and us being ready for that stage and that platform and those types of huge games. We're definitely more inward-focused and just trying to make sure that we're ready for those moments."