After the news broke that reigning national player of the year Paige Bueckers would miss up to two months with a tibial plateau fracture in her left knee, basketball fans began to wonder how UConn would fare in her absence.
The early returns were not promising as Georgia Tech pulled away from UConn in the fourth quarter on December 9th, en route to a 13-point victory. Despite this loss and Coach Geno Auriemma’s protestations that he’s “got guys that can barely play a lick,” UConn will likely be just fine considering the talent on their roster and their dominance against Big East competition last year, when they went 18-0 and won every conference game by double-digits.
The increased playing time and responsibility for UConn’s supporting cast over this stretch might also prove beneficial in the long run. Bueckers might even be available to suit up for UConn in its highly anticipated rematch with South Carolina on January 27th, 2022.
Bueckers’s extended absence might also give basketball fans the chance to see more of Frosh phenom Azzi Fudd, the nation’s top-ranked 2021 recruit, who’s only taken 24 total shots in four appearances this season. Fudd, who recently signed a wide-ranging NIL contract with Steph Curry’s brand SC30 Inc., is currently sitting out due to a foot injury, but could be back ripping jumpers for UConn in December.
And with Bueckers sidelined for two months, the race for national player of the year honors suddenly appears wide open. Two credible candidates in that race faced off December 8th, when #15 Iowa State hosted #12 Iowa in front of an exuberant crowd of over 11,000 in Ames. Both players acquitted themselves well, with Ashley Joens’s Cyclones holding off Caitlin Clark’s Hawkeyes 77-70 in the fierce rivalry game.
Joens scored 26 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, while younger sister Aubrey pitched in with a double-double of her own (12 & 11). It was sophomore point guard Lexi Donarski, though, who really popped, scoring 16 points, including two clutch fourth quarter threes. Donarski only had one turnover in 39 minutes, and played tough defense on Clark, helping to hold her to only 10 of 26 shooting from the field.
Even in a loss on an off-shooting night, Caitlin Clark still impressed, displaying the skills and qualities that make her one of the most dynamic playmakers in the game: the vision, the handle, the range, the footwork, the timing, the shotmaking. She kept Iowa in the game in a hostile environment, scoring 26, including a big three pointer to beat the third quarter buzzer and a “logo” three in the fourth.
Speaking of dynamic playmakers, Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard has also shown tremendous skills and qualities this season, as she has throughout her illustrious career. The 6-2 senior guard, and likely first overall pick in next year’s WNBA draft, contributes across the board, averaging 20.6 points per game on 50% shooting, 7.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 3.4 steals and 1 block.
As good as Howard and Clark have been, with Bueckers out, the frontrunner for player of the year recognition might just be NaLyssa Smith of Baylor. The 6-2 senior forward is a double-double machine, averaging 20.4 points on 57% shooting, 13.2 rebounds, and a block this season. On December 19th, basketball fans can see Smith and the #5 Bears take on the #13 Michigan Wolverines in a rematch of last year’s memorable Sweet Sixteen matchup. Naz Hillmon, Michigan’s own double-double machine, will lead the Wolverines in trying to avenge that Sweet Sixteen overtime loss.
Another outstanding player to watch is South Carolina’s 6-5 forward Aliyah Boston, who is averaging 16.8 points per game on 63.1% shooting, 9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in just 23.8 minutes per game. In the biggest game of the young season, Boston shone the brightest, going for 22 and 15 in a win over then #2 UConn. After watching Boston go for 29 points, 14 rebounds, 2 steals and 3 blocks on perfect shooting from the field (13-13) against North Carolina A&T on November 29th, Coach Dawn Staley, in her post-game presser, praised the junior forward’s work ethic saying, “Aliyah is probably one of the hardest working players I’ve ever been around. Everything about her wants to be better, wants to be great, and she does not take any of that for granted.”
Boston, guard Zia Cooke, and the rest of the #1 ranked Gamecocks had a series of terrific intersectional matchups this month, starting with a 66-59 toppling of #8 Maryland, whose upset bid fell short after dominant forward Ashley Owusu posted a 3-17 night from the field. South Carolina then traveled to Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 15th to face Coach Kara Lawson’s unbeaten #19 ranked Duke Blue Devils, once again prevailing 55-46. Finally, on December 21, South Carolina hosts defending national champion and #3 ranked Stanford, led by point guard Haley Jones and forward Cameron Brink, in a rematch of last year’s Final Four classic.
Kudos to Coach Staley for challenging her team with an incredibly difficult out-of-conference schedule this season. And it’s not like the schedule gets all that much easier when the Gamecocks enter conference play later this month. With six teams ranked in the Top 25, the SEC is well represented among the nation’s best, including #7 Tennessee’s return to the top-10 for the first time since 2018. And, in her first year at LSU, legendary former Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has the #22 Tigers back in the Top 25 for the first time since 2019.
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