Is it time for the UConn women to panic after a 5-3 start?

Paige Bueckers and the Huskies had lost three games by Dec. 3, the earliest the program had ever dropped three games in a season. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The UConn Huskies solemnly gathered for the postgame handshake on Sunday following their 80-68 loss as the Texas Longhorns' celebration raged on in Moody Center. Point guard Rori Harmon, who'd dropped 27 points and played excellent defense on Paige Bueckers, flexed to the crowd as teammate Khadija Faye picked her up and spun her around. The Longhorns had beaten the Huskies for the first time in school history.

There have been a lot of firsts -- the not-so-good kind -- this season for UConn. Or really, the last three.

The Texas game marked another disheartening defeat for UConn as it grapples with yet another season defined by injuries -- in this case, to guards Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme. The day after the Texas loss, the Huskies sank to No. 17 in the Associated Press poll, their worst ranking in 30 years.

With a 5-3 record -- the earliest the Huskies have lost three games in a season in program history -- heading into Sunday's Basketball Hall of Fame Women's Showcase (5 p.m. ET, ESPN) against No. 24 North Carolina, is it time to panic in Storrs?

Expectations were sky-high that 2023-24 would be a special season, perhaps the year UConn would win its first national title since 2016. The Huskies were ranked No. 2 in the preseason. Bueckers, the 2021 national player of the year, was back after missing last season with an ACL tear. The Huskies had an ideal mix of experienced returners and promising newcomers, ensuring a deeper bench than they've had in years. They were confident the roller-coaster days of two injury-plagued seasons were behind them.

But it all turned on its head less than 10 days into 2023-24, when Fudd -- the No. 1 overall recruit in 2021 -- tore her ACL and meniscus. The following week, Ducharme -- who has dealt with a variety of issues at UConn from taking hits to the head -- was ruled out indefinitely with neck spasms.

Optimism gave way to frustration.

"When I sit there and I'm watching what's happening in some of the games, it just really burns me up knowing what it could have been and instead what it is," coach Geno Auriemma said last week. "... It just kills me to watch us play sometimes with one hand behind our back, again."

Auriemma compares coaching to putting together a puzzle. In September, the coaching staff was happy with the picture, even though it was missing two pieces: redshirt freshman Jana El Alfy, who tore her Achilles in July with the U19 Egyptian national team, and sophomore Ayanna Patterson, who has yet to make her season debut as she recovers from offseason knee surgery.

The Huskies needed to make up for those missing pieces -- El Alfy in particular, as the 6-foot-5 center would have likely started and replaced the interior presence of Dorka Juhász. But, Auriemma figured, their remaining players could give a bit more to make up for the absences.

Instead, Fudd and Ducharme went down, weakening UConn's backcourt by diminishing its ability to space the floor and removing two big scorers. Almost every player has been forced into an unexpected role, in some cases as recently as three weeks ago, or is out of their comfort zone.

It's left the offense stagnant, players often forced to go 1-on-1 (UConn's assist rate is a shockingly low 53.2%). The Huskies aren't particularly strong on the glass, where they corral 52% of misses, while their defense lacks the length, discipline, energy and consistency often synonymous with UConn teams.

The Huskies' losses are easier to swallow, though, considering they've been at the hands of three top-five teams. Through Wednesday's games, UConn's opponents' win percentage (78.1%) was the fourth-highest of any Division I team this season when only including games played against D-I opponents, according to Her Hoop Stats. And their opponents' net rating of plus-21.9 is the highest mark in D-I. None of those marquee matchups were in the state of Connecticut, either.

Where do the Huskies go from here? They have plenty of chances to prove themselves: Sunday against the Tar Heels, the week after against No. 18 Louisville and in the new year against No. 14 Notre Dame (Jan. 27) and at top-ranked South Carolina (Feb. 11). Big East play will also have its challenges, led by No. 19 Marquette and No. 22 Creighton.

"Now you've got to redo the whole puzzle, because now the puzzle that you were making doesn't work anymore so you've got to take that apart and use the pieces that you have, and it's going to make a completely different picture," Auriemma said on a recent episode of The Geno Auriemma Show. "And you're doing that while you're playing and while you're getting your ass beat. That's not a recipe for loving life right now at this point."

Some things can't be fixed. The Huskies aren't suddenly going to get taller or quicker, add a game-changing defensive piece or generate a generational shooter. Some of those issues might be alleviated if/when Ducharme and Patterson return.

But in the meantime, they must focus on controlling what they can -- because the inability to do so is their biggest problem, Auriemma said Wednesday following UConn's 90-63 victory over Ball State. Just as they were tasked to compensate for the absences of El Alfy and Patterson, the remaining pieces will again have to make up for the team's shortcomings, and individually and collectively commit to improve defensively, work harder on the glass and work through things offensively.

Their offensive flow and chemistry will develop the more players are together on the court, the more everyone understands their roles and the more the coaching staff learns which combinations work.

The newcomers will get more comfortable as the season progresses, and have already shown flashes of how they can help on offense. Freshmen Ashlynn Shade and Qadence Samuels have demonstrated they can hit outside jumpers -- much-needed with Ducharme and Fudd out -- while KK Arnold can pressure the rim. The development of redshirt freshman Ice Brady (and eventual return of Patterson) will be crucial in bolstering the frontcourt.

The upperclassmen will need to step up, both in their consistent impact on the court and how they lead the underclassmen through yet another challenging season. But no player will be as critical as Bueckers. This couldn't have been the season she was imagining as she pushed through rehab, but Auriemma has referred to this as an opportunity for her to "grow up" and become a better leader and basketball player. More and more will be asked of her to produce -- not just in scoring but in leading UConn through adversity -- even as Auriemma said he doesn't want her to feel that weight.

The injury-plagued nature of the last three seasons might have resulted in the most trying stretch of Auriemma's nearly 40-year tenure. But aside from last season's Sweet 16 collapse with Bueckers sidelined, he has managed to get his teams to peak at the right time more often than not, resulting in 22 Final Four appearances, including 14 consecutive from 2008-2022.

Getting this team to reach its potential will be much more of an uphill battle, likely a prolonged process with more bumps to come. But it's unwise to write off UConn as long as Auriemma is on the sidelines and Bueckers, along with third-team All-American Aaliyah Edwards, are on the court. And it would be one of the most remarkable turnaround efforts for a program not used to being an underdog.

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What to watch this weekend: Basketball Hall of Fame Women's Showcase

All games will be played at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

No. 20 Florida State vs. No. 2 UCLA

Noon ET Sunday, ESPN2

Florida State (7-2) hit a skid a few weeks back, dropping a tight battle to Stanford before being upset by unranked Arkansas in the ACC/SEC Challenge. Still, the Seminoles -- now coming off bounce-back victories over Kent State and Jacksonville -- and their high-pace style and plethora of offensive weapons are never an easy opponent to face. Six players average at least 8.3 points per game, with Ta'Niya Latson leading the charge (17.5 PPG).

UCLA has cruised this season as one of the few undefeated teams remaining, but aside from UConn in the Cayman Islands Classic, the Bruins (8-0) haven't played any ranked foes (Princeton has been in and out of the Top 25). They are also well-balanced offensively with five players averaging double figures.

No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 11 No. Utah

2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN

Top-ranked and undefeated South Carolina (8-0) went 2-0 in a pair of road matchups versus defensive-minded North Carolina and Duke, but its next big opponent -- Pac-12 power Utah, which nearly took down eventual champion LSU in the Sweet 16 last season -- will be a different sort of test as the Utes are known for their high-powered offense.

Reigning Pac-12 player of the year Alissa Pili paces the Utes (8-1) with 23.2 points per game on 73.6% shooting from the field, but Lynne Roberts' squad will be without second-leading scorer Gianna Kneepkens, who suffered a season-ending foot injury last weekend, while Isabel Palmer hasn't played since Nov. 14. Utah is still looking for its first marquee win of the season after falling to Baylore 84-77 in mid-November, a game in which Pili saw limited minutes due to foul trouble.

No. 17 UConn vs. No. 24 North Carolina

5 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN

The Tar Heels (6-3) snapped a three-game losing streak with a 81-66 victory Wednesday over UNC Greensboro, using a 20-10 fourth quarter to put away the contest. Those previous three losses were by a combined 15 points, though, and most impressively they took the Gamecocks down to the wire at Carmichael Arena. Sunday's matchup against the Huskies (a de facto home game for the latter, with the game to be played 30 minutes from Storrs) marks UNC's next opportunity for a resume-building nonconference win. North Carolina's calling card has been its defense, and it even beat South Carolina on the glass - they'll have to assert their will in both those areas of the game for 40 minutes to upset UConn (5-3), who's hoping to win consecutive games for only the second time this season.