From the moment Paige Bueckers went down with a torn ACL, Geno Auriemma has been adamant that no one can replace the superstar on their own. Instead, UConn needs a few players to get an extra steal or two per game, or take a few more shots than they normally would. The Huskies will need a collective effort to fill the void left by Bueckers.
That doesn’t mean UConn wants to operate without a go-to player, though.
“We have mature kids, they don’t necessarily need a leader,” Auriemma said. “They need somebody to get a bucket and get a stop on the court.”
While nobody on the team will say it outright, it’s obvious UConn has someone in mind for that role: Azzi Fudd. Throughout the preseason, Auriemma’s hinted at his expectations — and confidence — in regards to the sophomore becoming the focal point of the Huskies’ offense. At Big East Media Day at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, he lobbed his heaviest praise to this point on Fudd.
“I would say based on one week of practice, Azzi’s as good as anybody we’ve had at this point in every area of the game,” he said. “She’s just so much better than last year at this time. She’s healthy and she can do some pretty special things.”
Out of high school, Fudd was tabbed as a generational, can’t-miss prospect but her freshman year at UConn didn’t immediately live up to the hype. A foot injury forced her to miss 11 games early and then the ailment lingered throughout the rest of the campaign.
Even though Fudd had a strong finish to the season — she broke out with a 25-point performance against Tennessee then followed that up with a career-high 29 points in the loss to Villanova in February — and the Huskies turned to her as their free throw specialist late in the game during the NCAA Tournament, she admitted in August that she never felt quite right on the floor.
“My explosiveness wasn’t there,” she said. “Like stepping in different directions would hurt sometimes, I would alter the way I was moving. It just wasn’t me.”
Fudd spent the offseason working to get her foot right. Now that she’s healthy, the biggest difference from last year to now is her ability to be more than just a catch-and-shoot specialist. As a freshman, 57.7 percent of her total field goal attempts came from behind the arc. This year, UConn will get the full package — which will likely include point guard and ball-handling duties with Bueckers sidelined.
“Azzi’s much better ball handler than people have seen because she usually catches and shoots it,” Auriemma explained. “But in all the things that we’ve done, she’s probably as good as anybody we have at getting to the basket, attacking the defense and getting the ball to where we need to get to, getting the shots she wants to get.”
This isn’t the only time Auriemma has been effusive in his praise of Fudd. At the start of the semester, he revealed his expectations for the sophomore.
“There’s no reason why she can’t be one of the top players in the country and that’s how I’m gonna coach her. Because that’s what I think she can do,” he said.
Auriemma’s coached a lot of good players over the years — which is putting it lightly. For him to say that Fudd is “as good as anybody” (emphasis added) at this point in her career is the highest possible praise the coach could give. Even if Auriemma didn’t point to anyone in particular when discussing who the team’s new go-to player might be, his comments make it clear that he has one player in mind for the job: Azzi Fudd.
“What’s a leader? Azzi is never going to call a huddle and say, ‘Alright guys, here’s what we’re gonna do.’ That’s just not gonna happen,” Auriemma said. “But with two guys in her face and she’s got a 28-footer, it’s going in. So I like that kind of leader.”
As daunting as the task may be, Fudd sounds ready for it.
“You gotta be Azzi and you got to be a little bit of Paige,” Auriemma told the sophomore. “She said, ‘That’s a lot.’ I said, ‘I know.’
“And she said, ‘It’s not anything I can’t handle.’”