For UConn to thrive this season, Paige Bueckers needs to be more like Caitlin Clark

For UConn to thrive this season, Paige Bueckers needs to be more like Caitlin Clark

Since high school, Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark’s basketball stories have been intertwined.

The two top guards in the 2020 recruiting class — Bueckers the No. 1 overall player, Clark the No. 4 — both hailed from the Midwest, playing on rival EYBL teams and then together in Team USA’s youth program. Both were excellent 3-point shooters, lethal from the wings and left baseline, with the ability to hit the free-throw pullups and finish at the hoop. But they also had their unique flairs — for Clark, it was her range; for Bueckers, it was off-balance runners perfectly kissed off the glass.

For college, they chose alternate paths. Clark opted to stay home and play for Iowa, a program that had been to the Elite Eight four times in program history, but just once in Clark’s lifetime. Bueckers, a Minnesota native, signed with UConn, a dynasty that had not only made the Elite Eight almost every year of Bueckers’ life but also won nine national titles during that span.

Even as freshmen, while they played in mostly empty arenas (many, only sparsely filled with cardboard cutouts during the COVID-19 season), it was evident that they were the types of players who could dominate the college conversation until their careers almost certainly led to the WNBA.

That season, they met in the Sweet 16, a game billed — from the moment the bracket was released — as a clash between two of the most dynamic scorers in the nation.

“It’s been a while since you have two kids that have had this kind of an impact, both on their teams and on the game itself nationally,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said before that game. “To have one is kinda cool. But to have two. … It’s two really, really young kids, really good players that do a lot for their teams.”

Bueckers’ Huskies beat Clark’s Hawkeyes 92-72, but their individual performances hinted at the talents they were and could become. Bueckers finished with 18 points, eight assists and nine rebounds. Clark ended with 21 points and five assists.

The game was a perfect encapsulation, in some ways, of why two paths — for two equally impactful players — had diverged. Clark went to Iowa knowing she would be the Hawkeyes’ No. 1 offensive option, their go-to, do-everything player. She took 21 of Iowa’s 60 shots that night. And since then, that trend has continued as Clark has averaged 19.3 shot attempts a game during her college career, accounting for 31 percent of the Hawkeyes’ field goals since 2020.

But Bueckers chose UConn for almost the opposite reason. Though she could be the kind of player who took a third of her team’s shots, she wanted to play within a more balanced system. She actively recruited other players, such as Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the class behind her, to join her on the Huskies’ roster, hoping it would effectively guarantee that the responsibility would be shouldered collectively as a team — because that’s how UConn had built its dominance over the years.

Even when the program had national player-of-the-year talent such as Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart and Maya Moore (and even Bueckers during the 2020-21 season), that single player never offensively dominated the box scores like Clark has over the past three years in Iowa City. In the last 20 seasons, only two players have averaged more than 15 shots a game over the course of a season — Megan Walker (15.5) from 2019-20 and Moore (16.7) from 2010-11.

But now the Huskies are in a significantly different situation. With a roster hampered by injuries and an eight-player rotation featuring four freshmen, Bueckers and UConn might need to take a page out of Clark and Iowa’s book. She might need to become the kind of shot-hunter, primary (and secondary) offensive option on every possession that hasn’t been a UConn hallmark, but did carry the Hawkeyes to the national title game a season ago.

And Bueckers can be that.


A better, more confident Paige Bueckers? ‘That’s pretty scary’

Against UCLA, Bueckers took 23 shot attempts. It’s the one reason the Huskies were even in that game. On every possession, the Bruins keyed in on her. Every screen she came off, two to three players crashed in on her, and whenever a player gave her breathing room outside the arc, she launched.

It’s not the role Bueckers envisioned for herself at UConn, but it’s the one that gives the Huskies the best shot of righting the ship this season. Ironically, what she didn’t want (to be an 18-shot player night in and night out) could be the only way UConn gets within striking distance of the one thing she wants (a national title).

To get there, it can’t be just Bueckers. Every Huskies player would need to raise her game, and UConn will need to figure out its issues on the glass, but by drawing more attention to herself, she’ll give everyone else a bit more breathing room. Even after missing all of last season, she is still one of the most respected shot makers in the game. And it does not matter how many shots she might miss, because like Clark, anywhere on the floor, anytime she has the ball in her hands, she’s a scoring threat.

Now, she just needs to do that more. Against Texas, Rori Harmon and the Longhorns defense delivered a harsh reality check about the offensive ceiling for UConn. Bueckers was held to 11 shot attempts and the team took just 44. Even so, the Huskies were within 6 points with less than two minutes to go.

It’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback any game and say Bueckers would have or should’ve done something, that UConn would have or should’ve put her in different positions (especially considering so much credit is due to Texas’ defense). But ultimately, if UConn wants to be UConn this season, Bueckers needs to take on a role she didn’t want. She needs to play more selfishly, a bit more unconsciously. It’s the only way UConn might get back to its program’s identity by March.

Bueckers taking 20 shots a game like Clark isn’t going to fix everything for UConn. But it’s the one thing that might be able to give the Huskies enough of a cushion in the interim to figure out everything else.

(Photo of Paige Bueckers: Lance King / Getty Images)

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