UConn’s Paige Bueckers, overshadowed by Caitlin Clark, can ‘reintroduce’ herself in NCAA Tournament

Paige Bueckers’ fame started long before she stepped foot in Storrs. She was a high school star in Minnesota, a player with a national profile and a colossal Internet following.

Her fame ballooned when she was named the National Player of the Year as a freshman at UConn, the biggest stage in the sport.

But back-to-back knee injuries forced the star to take a step back for two seasons. And in the meantime, another player arose.

UConn star Paige Bueckers working her way back from knee injury | AP News

As the NCAA Tournament begins this week, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is the face of women’s college basketball. Bueckers, leading UConn into the tournament, is no longer the biggest name in the sport after climbing back this season with far less publicity.

But just three years ago, Bueckers and Clark shared the 2021 co-National Freshman of the Year award.

Since then, their parallel careers have seemingly diverged. One climbing her way back from not one but two major knee injuries. And the other pushing the standard from the bottom up all the way to a new, record-breaking height.

Thanks to name, image and likeness (NIL), Clark’s No. 22 is everywhere. She’s the moment in not just women’s college basketball, but March Madness as a whole. The NCAA’s all-time leading scorer and counting. She’s expected to be No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming WNBA Draft and in the meantime, she’s on Nike billboards, Gatorade and State Farm commercials and is mentioned in nearly every national basketball broadcast and news story.

Then there’s Bueckers, who sat out all last season and majority of the one prior due to injury. She’s returned this year full healthy and is playing her best basketball yet. She’s not only the best player in the Big East, but one of most efficient in the country. Yet her profile is eclipsed by Clark’s.

It isn’t a matter of talent. But of attention. Both deserving, undoubtedly yes, but one just riding a completely unprecedented wave.

“I think one of the reasons both of them when they are playing are so arresting to watch, if you will, is because as point guards they have the ball in their hands a lot and they’re both great shooters and passers,” said ESPN reporter Michael Voepel, who’s been covering women’s basketball for nearly 40 years. “When you’re watching them play, you kind of don’t take your eyes off them.”

‘Ray of sunshine’

Bueckers was the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2020. Clark was No. 4.

Bueckers chose to play at the most successful collegiate program in the sport, while Clark chose to stay home and go to Iowa, a program that at the time had only been to the Final Four once in 1993.

Their first year coincided with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Games were canceled last minute due to the virus shutting down programs and isolating teams. The 2021 NCAA Tournament was held entirely in a “bubble” in San Antonio, Texas.

UConn faced Iowa in the Sweet 16. The main storyline: Bueckers vs Clark. The Huskies’ star pushed her team to a win with 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. Clark led the Hawkeyes with 21 points and five assists.

While both shared the honor of Freshman of the Year that spring, Bueckers swept the National Player of the Year awards and became the first freshmen ever to do so.

UConn's Paige Bueckers cleared for return to basketball

“She was kinda like a ray of sunshine, not be too dramatic, but like the whole world was kind of tense then and it was like, ‘Here comes this kid who’s just can’t wait to play and is really good,’” Voepel said. “The interesting thing was Caitlin was doing the same thing. She just, at that point, wasn’t getting as much attention for it.”

But then came the Buecker’s back-to-back knee injuries.

She played just 17 games as a sophomore due to a non-contact tibial plateau fracture in her left knee. She returned in time for the postseason in 2022 and led UConn to the national championship game, yet wasn’t quite herself.

Four months later, Bueckers tore her ACL in the same knee during a pickup game on campus. Her junior year was over before preseason workouts even began. She spent the 2022-23 season behind the scenes, rehabbing and healing. Her iconic freshman season dropping further into the past with each day she spent on the bench, unable to play.

“It was hard to not have her last year,” Voepel said. “You miss that presence but the game moves on right? It does in all sports. And so, other people step forward and as it turned out, the one who stepped forward the most was Caitlin.”

In Bueckers’ absence, Clark took off.

She averaged 27.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists starting all of Iowa’s 32 games as a sophomore.

The Hawkeyes reached the Sweet 16, stamping their spot on the national map. While South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston won National Player of the Year, Clark led the nation in assists and points. She earned her first of two Nancy Lieberman Awards, given annually to the nation’s best point guard.

And Clark’s junior year was even more impressive. The guard took over the national spotlight. She upped her scoring to 27.8 points per game and increased her assists to 8.6 per contest.

While her supporting cast at Iowa was also great, no one compared. She made logo 3-pointers and triple-doubles look effortless, including recording 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in the Elite Eight.

She was the unanimous National Player of the Year in 2023 as the Hawkeyes spoiled South Carolina’s undefeated season in the Final Four and advanced to the program’s first-ever national championship game. Despite falling to LSU for the trophy, Clark’s fame exploded in part due to the title game setting a record for viewers with 9.9 million on ABC.

This season, Clark and Bueckers were expected to be among the top five best players in this year’s senior class.

Bueckers has come back from injury playing her best basketball yet. She’s averaging career-highs across the board including a 53.75 field goal percentage (the second-best for a guard in the nation) and 21.3 points per game. However, she’s no longer solely a point guard for the Huskies.

Due to UConn’s lack of big bodies this season, she’s often played a point-forward position that enables her to facilitate the offense, but also spend time down low working the post alongside Aaliyah Edwards.

“When you’ve had to go through two years of recovery, I just think she’s a really special and good player and special for being a comprehensive all-around guard,” DePaul head coach Doug Bruno said in January.

“… She’s just a really good, solid all-around basketball player. So, I’m just happy for her that she’s healthy and getting back and it takes time.

I think every player that comes back from any year-long injury they’re always so much better than second year post-op. …Had this thing (Bueckers vs Clark) been running as a two-horse race from the get-go, it really would have been cool to watch and that’s just me as a fan.”

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‘Singular entity’

Clark’s stock and profile has risen to an even higher level this season.

She began the year with a triple double on the sport’s biggest stage — literally — with 34 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists against DePaul at Kinnick Stadium (home of Iowa football) in a preseason game in front of the biggest crowd ever recorded at a women’s basketball game (55,646).

“You can’t compare anybody right now that to Caitlin Clark,” said former UConn great and current ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo. “She is a singular entity in terms of the attention she’s drawing, not only from the media, but from fans who are buying tickets and from fans who are tuning in. We’ve never seen a singular force like we’re seeing with Caitlin Clark in women’s college basketball, driving eyeballs to the game.”

Clark broke the NCAA women’s career scoring record (3,527) on Feb. 16. Twelve days later, she broke the 1981 record set by Lynette Woodard’s for most career points in women’s college basketball (3,649). And on March 3, Clark became the all-time leading scorer across both men’s and women’s college basketball, surpassing Pete Maravich’s previous NCAA Division-1 record of 3,667 from 1970.

The Iowa star enters the NCAA Tournament with 3,771 points.

“I think people are interested in being part of something they think is historical,” Voepel said. “And that’s absolutely what the season has been like for her. She’s really lived up, and surpassed in some ways, all the expectation when you think of how much anticipation there was for the season for her because of the big season she had last year. She met those expectations. She was as good as ever.”

While there’s other key storylines in women’s college basketball this season — Bueckers herself an example — nothing has earned as much national attention as Clark.

UConn guard Paige Bueckers expected to return for senior year – NBC  Connecticut

“It’s been a case, and this happens sometimes, where there’s just a storyline that is so kind of all-consuming that it really does; I don’t want to say it blocks out everything else because I think there’s been a lot of interest in a lot of other things — including the freshmen, another undefeated South Carolina team, how are the defending national champions going to do? — I think a lot of the storylines have been still really big. It’s just Clark has been the biggest story,” Voepel said.

Off the court, NIL has helped both players gain more exposure. Both have partnerships with brand giants like Gatorade and Nike. They’re in commercials, social media ads and even on murals. The law that made it possible for college athletes to profit off their own brands came into effect their sophomore years.

While the women’s game has seen stars before — such as Lobo in the 1990’s — none have benefited in such a way.

“Because of NIL, Nike has T-shirts ready to go when she (Clark) breaks Kelsey Plum’s record,” Voepel said. “They have T-shirts ready to go when she passes Pistol Pete’s record. They have a gigantic mural they can put up on the side of a building in Iowa City. … That’s not just the media that is growing. It’s literally Corporate America that is growing the sport and that couldn’t have happened before NIL.”

Both Bueckers and Clark are in the running for National Player of the Year again this spring. Both were named AP First Team All-Americans, and both are trying to bring their teams back to the Final Four.

But the headlines around the All-American team led with Clark. Bueckers, despite her season, was more of an afterthought.

This is Clark’s final NCAA Tournament run. She will begin her professional career and declare for the WNBA Draft in April. Meanwhile, Bueckers will be returning to Storrs next season and has the opportunity to come back for another year after that if she chooses. She’ll likely be the No. 1 overall pick in either draft year.

While Clark owns the nation’s attention, Bueckers and the Huskies always seem to find another gear in March. No. 3-seeded UConn opens the NCAA Tournament on Saturday hosting No. 14 Jackson State.

Bueckers carried UConn to the Big East Tournament title earlier in March with 83 points on 30 of 58 shooting over three games. As she moves to the NCAA stage, she has never played better.

“I think this NCAA Tournament could sort of be a chance for Paige to reintroduce herself to everybody,” Lobo said.

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