UConn enters the NCAA women’s basketball tournament with a 29-5 record and a No. 2 seed despite injuries to key players and hardships for Coach Geno Auriemma. AP Photo/Jessica Hill

ROCKY HILL, Conn. – As has been well chronicled, this has been a tough year for Geno Auriemma, personally and, by UConn women’s basketball standards, at least, professionally.But just as his team has weathered storms and bounced back, about to begin another NCAA Tournament, so has the coach. Auriemma, who turns 69 on March 23, says he will be back for a 39th season.

“Yes,” Auriemma said with a hearty laugh. “I’m coming back next year. I’m not going anywhere.”

It’s not hard to understand, either. Auriemma has no unfinished business at UConn, though the hunger to add more national championships to the 11 in the trophy case is a constant. However, the chance to finally coach Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd together next season would probably keep any coach from hanging it up.

“I was trying to think of how many games they’ve played together, I think it’s less than 20,” Auriemma said. “And of those 20, I don’t know how many where they were both 100 percent. And Paige said she came to play four years, and she’s played kind of one and three-quarters, so let’s see what happens next year.”

Actually, Fudd and Bueckers, former USA Basketball teammates, have played together in only 15 games and started together in only six at UConn, the first four and last 11 in 2021-22. UConn lost two of those 15 – both to top-ranked South Carolina.

There’s March 2023 to draw the focus now. But as Auriemma, who missed some midseason games due to illness, heals internally from the loss of his mother, Marsiella, in December and comes out the other side of a second season in which his team has been hit with a series of injuries, he can escape the pressure of the present for a moment here or there to imagine the joy it would bring to watch two close friends, insanely talented and charismatic, get the experience they signed on for at UConn.


“I watch the way they interact, the way they communicate,” Auriemma said, “and the effect they have on the rest of their teammates and it’s pretty special, and I would love to see them on the big stage and what they add. I don’t know that there are two people in a backcourt who can make that kind of impact anywhere else.”

Bueckers, the national player of the year as a freshman in 2020-21, missed much of last season with a knee injury, and Fudd, as a freshman, missed several games with a foot injury.

When they did return in March, there was a glimpse of the potential star power in the Huskies’ thrilling, overtime victory over NC State in the Elite Eight game in Bridgeport last March 27. Bueckers scored 27, with 17 in the fourth quarter and overtime periods, and Fudd, working her perimeter shooting, scored 19.

Bueckers was lost for the season with an ACL in August, and Fudd, after a torrid start, missed much of the season with knee injuries before returning for the Big East Tournament.

Having to miss this tournament is killing Bueckers, Auriemma said, but her recovery is on pace and, with Fudd back, Auriemma envisions the program’s trip to Croatia, Slovenia and Italy next August as their time to get reacclimated to playing together.

“Hopefully, that will be an opportunity for them,” he said.


Missing two of the best players in the country, the Huskies are 29-5 and won the regular-season and tournament titles in the Big East, a conference with five teams in the NCAA’s field of 68.

That and other big-time wins over Tennessee, North Carolina State and Texas, in Auriemma’s mind, warranted a No.1 seed. Instead, UConn is a No. 2, to host Vermont in the first round Saturday and, with a win, either Baylor or Alabama.

“We won the most games against the best teams of any team in the country,” Auriemma said during a speech Monday at a Middlesex (Connecticut) County Chamber of Commerce breakfast. “So we they used the men’s criteria, we would have been a No.1 seed. If we were called something other than ‘UConn,’ we would have been a No.1 seed, because it’s better that we’re not a No.1, it gives our kids a chance, last year was the same thing, to be somewhat, sort of, kind of, the underdog.”

That doesn’t temper the expectations, in-state or out. Fourteen straight trips to the Final Four will do that.

“I don’t know that Connecticut ever gets the opportunity, or the privilege to be an underdog,” Auriemma said. “When are we going to be the underdog? We’re not going to be the underdog Saturday, if we win, we’re not going to be the underdog. If we go to Seattle [for the Regionals], we’re not going to be the underdog. The only time we’re going to be the underdog is if we play Virginia Tech. If something happens and they get upset, we’re not the underdog any more. So, it’s rare that it ever happens.”

“You’re going to feel (pressure) no matter what. It doesn’t matter where you’re seeded or what regional you’re in. Each game is like a season. Your season rests on one game and that’s pressure for kids. Imagine being that kid who is on the free throw line, down one with one second left. Put yourself in that situation.”

It’s not the easiest environment, never a dime of “house money” going into a game, but it is what Auriemma has created at UConn across 38 seasons.

March is “what it’s all about” at UConn, stress, pressure and all, and he’s up for more of it.

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