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UConn WBB Weekly: With Paige Bueckers out, Nika Mühl is now UConn’s most important player

The junior is the only true point guard on the Huskies’ roster, which means she’ll need to cut down on fouls and turnovers while improving her scoring ability.

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Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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With Paige Bueckers out for the season, Nika Mühl is UConn’s most important player

This was already shaping up to be a big year for Nika Mühl. With Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams off to the pros, Mühl needed to take on a bigger role both on the court and from a leadership perspective. As much of an impact as she had in her first two seasons — most notably winning Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2021 — as a high-energy spark plug, UConn needed her to become more well-rounded.

“Nika has to be better offensively — more consistent offensively,” Geno Auriemma said in June. “Just to be more of a threat offensively so that people guard her more and there’s less leaving her to go double someone else.”

That was an attainable goal for Mühl — a reasonable step forward at this point in her career.

Then Paige Bueckers tore her ACL. And just like that, Mühl became the Huskies’ most important player as the team’s only true point guard with no obvious options behind her. The entire offense will be placed in Mühl’s hands this season.

That alone shouldn’t be much of a concern. She has plenty of experience running UConn’s offense and spent plenty of time this past season as the only true point guard when Bueckers was out with her tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus. Mühl knows how to pull the strings to make everything go smoothly.

The biggest concern will be whether she can stay on the floor. Through two years, fouls have been an issue for Mühl due to her physicality and difficulty adjusting to the more finesse-oriented American style of play compared to Europe. Last season, she committed 2.0 fouls per game but 3.6 fouls per 40 minutes — both of which ranked in the bottom 41 percent of the nation. With so little depth behind her in the backcourt, let alone at point guard, Mühl’s ability to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble will be crucial.

That’s not the only aspect of her game that needs to improve. Mühl is already an above-average passer and dished out 2.6 assists per game last year, which put her among the top 15 percent nationally. Her 4.9 assists per 40 minutes were even more impressive, ranking in the top six percent of the country. In February, she had a stretch where she totaled at least five assists in five consecutive games.

We know Mühl can set up her teammates. The bigger question will be whether she can cut down on turnovers. As a sophomore, she coughed the ball up 1.5 times per game — which was right off the national average — and had an assist/turnover ratio of 1.73. Historically, the great UConn point guards are north of 2.00, though Mühl’s mark is higher than Jen Rizzotti, Renee Montgomery and Bria Hartley at the same point in their respective careers.

Mühl isn’t a turnover machine but she’s at the point in her career where she needs to learn to protect the ball better and improve her decision-making — which is already above-average. Limiting mistakes is often what separates the good point guards from the great ones.

Then there’s the matter of the offensive improvement. Mühl was already working on it this offseason before Bueckers went down, but now it’s even more paramount with 37.8 points per game in the backcourt gone from last season.

Through two years, Mühl has averaged just 4.3 points per game. Nobody expects her to be UConn’s leading scorer in Bueckers’ absence but she needs to be enough of a threat to keep defenses honest.

According to her coach, Mühl’s offensive improvement will depend on two things: better finishing around the rim and the development of a pull-up jumper.

“Getting to the basket is not a problem for Nika. Finishing has been,” Auriemma said. “If Nika was a baseball player, she’d be put out to pasture because she doesn’t hit home runs. She’d be a singles hitter. We don’t need her to make eight threes a game. We need her to make five pull up jump shots after she penetrates.”

As a freshman, Mühl only converted 45.8 percent of her shots from around the rim but improved to 70.0 percent this past year, per CBB Analytics. However, she only took nine mid-range shots total, making three. It’s not a shot Mühl’s particularly comfortable with, which is why the best teacher this offseason has been failure.

“Just honestly watching film, incorporating that into practice, building confidence, failing the lot,” she said when asked how she’s worked to add a pull-up jumper. “Just taking my shots, taking my chances with things, just believing myself more. I feel like that was the biggest thing for me.”

Mühl spent her time in Storrs during the summer session working with assistant coach Morgan Valley to improve her offensive abilities and although only lasted for a little more than a month, Mühl’s progress on offense was already evident.

“She’s improved. She’s just better,” Auriemma said of Mühl. “She’s better right now than she was at the end of the season.”

“You can tell it’s starting to work and you can see the footwork and all the patience coming to fruition,” Bueckers added in June.

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