Since high school, Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark’s basketball stories have been intertwined.
The top two guards in the 2020 recruiting class — Bueckers the No. 1 overall player, Clark the No. 4 — both came 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 the left baseline, with the ability to make free throws and finish at the basket. But they also had their own unique characteristics: for Clark it was his range; for Bueckers, it was perfectly glass-kissed off-balance runners.
They chose alternative paths for college. Clark decided to stay home and play for Iowa, a program that had been to the Elite Eight four times in program history, but only once in Clark’s life. Bueckers, a Minnesota native, signed with UConn, a dynasty that had not only been a part of the Elite Eight nearly every year of Bueckers’ life but had also won nine national titles during that span.
Even as freshmen, even as 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 type of players who could dominate the college conversation until their career almost certainly would not have taken them 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 nation’s most dynamic scorers.
“It’s been a while since you’ve had two guys who have had this kind of impact, both on their teams and on the game itself on a national level,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said before that match. “Having one is pretty cool. But have two. … They’re two really, really young guys, really good players who do a lot for their teams.
Bueckers’ Huskies beat Clark’s Hawkeyes 92-72, but their individual performances hinted at the talent they were and could become. Bueckers finished with 18 points, eight assists and nine rebounds. Clark finished with 21 points and five assists.
The game was a perfect encapsulation, in a way, of why two paths – for two players of equal impact – had diverged. Clark went to Iowa knowing she would be the Hawkeyes’ No. 1 offensive option, their go-to player and do-it-all. 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 per game during his college career, accounting for 31% of the Hawkeyes’ field goals since 2020.
But Bueckers chose UConn for almost the opposite reason. While she might be the type of player capable of making a third of her team’s shots, she wanted to play within a more balanced system. She actively recruited other players, like Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the class behind her, to join her on the Huskies’ roster, hoping that this would effectively ensure that responsibility would be met collectively as a team — because that’s how UConn he had built his dominance over the years.
Even when the program had National Talents of the Year like Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart and Maya Moore (and even Bueckers during the 2020-21 season), that single player never dominated the box scores offensively like Clark did over the course of the season. he spent three years in Iowa City. Over the past 20 seasons, only two players have averaged more than 15 shots per game over the course of a season: Megan Walker (15.5) in 2019-20 and Moore (16.7) in 2010-11.
But now the Huskies find themselves in a significantly different situation. With a roster hampered by injuries and an eight-player rotation featuring four freshmen, Bueckers and UConn may have to take a leaf out of Clark and Iowa’s book. She may need to become the kind of shot-caller, primary (and secondary) offensive option on every possession that hasn’t been a UConn hallmark, but led the Hawkeyes to the national title game a season ago.
And Bueckers can be.
A better, more confident Paige Bueckers? “It’s pretty scary”
Against UCLA, Bueckers made 23 shot attempts. It’s the only reason the Huskies were in that game. Every possession, the Bruins controlled it. Every screen she came out of, two or three players crashed into her, and every time a player gave her breathing room outside the arc, she dashed.
It’s not the role Bueckers envisioned for herself at UConn, but it’s the one that gives the Huskies their best shot at righting the ship this season. Ironically, what she didn’t want (to be an 18-shot hitter night in, night out) may be the only way UConn comes close to the one thing she wants (a national title).
Getting there can’t just be Bueckers. Every Huskies player should improve their game, and UConn will have to figure out its issues on the glass, but by drawing more attention to itself, it will give everyone else a little more breathing room. Even after missing all of last season, she is still one of the most respected shooters in the game. And it doesn’t matter how many shots she might miss, because like Clark, anywhere on the court, anytime he has the ball in her hands, she is a threat to score.
Now he just needs to do it more. Against Texas, Rori Harmon and the Longhorns defense had a stark reality check regarding UConn’s offensive ceiling. Bueckers was forced into 11 shot attempts and the team made just 44. Even so, the Huskies were within 6 points with less than two minutes left.
It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback in any game and say that Bueckers would or should have done something, that UConn would or should have put her in different positions (especially considering so much credit is owed to the Texas defense). But ultimately, if UConn wants to be UConn this season, Bueckers has to take on a role he didn’t want. He needs to play more selfishly, a little more unconsciously. It’s the only way UConn could return to its program’s identity by March.
Bueckers taking 20 shots a game like Clark won’t solve everything for UConn. But it’s the one thing that might be able to give the Huskies enough support in the meantime to figure everything else out.
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(Photo by Paige Bueckers: Lance King/Getty Images)