For a moment, Geno Auriemma paused, silent.
If you know Auriemma, the uber-successful coach at the University of Connecticut, owner of 11 NCAA championship wins, eight Naismith Coach of the Year awards, and five gold medals (three Olympic, two World Championship), this is news.
Auriemma is rarely at a loss for words. And yet: He was asked what point guard Paige Bueckers needed to improve upon after winning nearly every award available as a freshman. The former Hopkins High School star can shoot and see the floor, drive and deliver the ball, captivate and cash in on her considerable fame.
So: What can Bueckers, entering her sophomore season, do better?
"It's subtle,'' Auriemma said. "Well, we talk with her about making sure she handles whatever defenses throw at her.''
"Maybe she could go left more to score.''
And then, the truth for anyone who goes to play for Connecticut: Win.
"There is pressure with playing here,'' Auriemma said. "It's not for everybody. But without the pressure, you don't get the rewards of playing here.''
Ah, there you go. Bueckers has already become the face of college women's basketball. She has trademarked "Paige Buckets.'' She has already signed what promises to be a lucrative name, image and likeness contract with StockX. As a freshman she scored 20 points a game with 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds and shot 52.4%. Her team went 28-2 and reached the Final Four in San Antonio.
“Being a Minnesota kid, I'm proud of her. She's done a lot for the game. She's shown she can make an impact on society. Just a great kid. And I know she'll have a lot of success. She's somebody who will probably be on the next Olympic team. She'll be in the WNBA.”
But: UConn didn't win it, falling to Arizona in the semifinals.
Anyone who watched Bueckers grow up, watched her play for Hopkins, saw how competitive she can be, knows this isn't acceptable. So, the second-ranked Huskies — who will play the Gophers on Saturday in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas — have a leader who, more than anything else, wants to win. As in, win it all.
"The only thing I'm thinking about is that we came up short,'' Bueckers said at Big East Conference media day. "That's been motivating me all summer and I think it's motivating us now.
"It's always in the back of our minds, and it's pushing us to go even harder this season. I don't really look at the accomplishments much. I'm not too much into individual stuff. …. The challenge for us, and for me now, is just to win the national championship.''
Next spring's Final Four, of course, is in Minneapolis. It's great when a plan comes together, right?
"I'm so excited to have the Final Four in Minneapolis,'' Bueckers said in an e-mail correspondence with the Star Tribune. "It's definitely something to look forward to, to motivate me for the season. It'd be really special to play in my home state in the biggest weekend of the season.''
Saturday's game is special for Bueckers to play against the Gophers and coach Lindsay Whalen. For Whalen, it's special to coach against Auriemma, who was her coach on two Olympic teams and two World Championship teams.
"It's not for me to decide, but he may be the greatest coach ever,'' Whalen said. Whalen said she owes Auriemma a lot. He gave her the opportunity to play for Team USA. In her words, Auriemma saw something in her that she, at the time, might not have seen.
How to watch the Gophers-UConn game on the web
And then, Bueckers. By the time Whalen took over as Gophers coach in April 2018, Bueckers-to-UConn was well in the works. Whalen always admired Bueckers' game. The recruitment process made her realize how good a person she was, too.
"Being a Minnesota kid, I'm proud of her,'' Whalen said. "She's done a lot for the game. She's shown she can make an impact on society. Just a great kid. And I know she'll have a lot of success. She's somebody who will probably be on the next Olympic team. She'll be in the WNBA.''
Bueckers was limited over the summer by ankle surgery she had after her freshman season ended. She said she worked hard on her shot and building muscle, getting stronger. Since getting back on the court she has worked on her defense.
Gophers guard Sara Scalia played against Bueckers and Hopkins in the 2019 Minnesota 4A title game, won by Hopkins.
"She can do everything,'' Scalia said. "I like her ability to not only create her own shot, but see the floor. The whole floor, really well. She gets her teammates such easy shots. It's not just her ability to score. It's what she does for her teammates.''
But if scoring is necessary?
In UConn's opener against Arkansas — a 95-80 win — Bueckers played all 40 minutes, scored 34 points on 15-for-19 shooting with six rebounds, four assists and two steals.
This is a loaded Connecticut team. Much of last season's team is back, a year more experienced. Then there is the addition of a stellar recruiting class led by Azzi Fudd. Auriemma has said Bueckers will be better simply because the team around her is better.
"She is a Diana Taurasi-level teammate,'' he told the New Britain (Conn.) Herald. "Only nicer about it.''
Building her UConn legacy
The "Paige Buckets" trademark. Her NIL deal. Asked if all that can be a distraction, she said no. She has an agent for that stuff. During the season, it's basketball. "What matters is my team and my teammates,'' she said. "I just want to play basketball and be a good person.''
Auriemma said he was impressed by Bueckers' ability to focus on the game amid distraction, really from the minute she arrived in Connecticut. "She handles it as well as anyone could possibly imagine, given what is said and written about her,'' Auriemma said.
The goal at Connecticut is always to win it all. Other than that, Auriemma said, he hasn't mentioned the Final Four — or where it will be played — at all. He wants his players focused in the present.
“There is pressure with playing here. It's not for everybody. But without the pressure, you don't get the rewards of playing here.”
But Bueckers knows how a dream season could end. She would like to be the next great player to lead UConn to a title.
That list is long, of course. So when a great player comes to play for the Huskies, there are always comparisons being made. To Taurasi, perhaps. Maya Moore. Breanna Stewart. For Auriemma, the truly great players don't try to be anyone but themselves.
"Sometimes kids are affected by that,'' Auriemma said. "But Maya didn't come here to be the next Diana. Stewey didn't want to be the next Maya. The great ones write their own story.''
And this is Bueckers' second chapter.
But one person sees a strong similarity. Whalen played against Taurasi, both in a Final Four and in the WNBA. She sees Bueckers' build, her long arms. Her skills, her confidence.
"Their personalities, their swag, how they carry themselves,'' Whalen said. "The way they shoot it, create, get into the paint, run the team. Some players are just special like that, you know?"