How Azzi Fudds injury impacts UConn, the Big East and NCAA title race

UConn sophomore Azzi Fudd is expected to miss three to six weeks with a right knee injury she suffered in the first quarter of the Huskies’ loss to Notre Dame on Sunday.

The news, released Tuesday by UConn, felt like a nightmarish bout of déjà vu to Huskies enthusiasts who have watched UConn get decimated by injuries over the past 12 months, and have now witnessed serious knee injuries to Paige Bueckers and Fudd almost a year apart against the same team. Once again, Bueckers, the 2020-21 national player of the year, and Fudd, whose scoring outbursts against multiple top-10 teams this season put her name into the early conversation for the 2022-23 award, will share the bench together just as they did for nine games last year when both were out (knee and foot injuries, respectively).

Fudd’s prognosis, at least, indicates she is expected to return this season, while we won’t see Bueckers (ACL tear) until 2023-24.

The UConn injury bug has impacted multiple players: Freshman Ice Brady is out for the season after suffering a dislocated patella. Graduate student Dorka Juhász broke her thumb in a win over Texas on Nov. 14 and has missed the past five games.

Fudd — who suffered a torn right MCL and ACL in April 2019, and struggled with a foot issue that prevented her from being fully healthy as a freshman — could return as early as later this month or as late as Jan. 17, depending on the three- to six-week scale.

ESPN.com’s Alexa Philippou, M.A. Voepel and Charlie Creme discuss how Fudd’s injury could impact the trajectory of the Huskies’ season after their encouraging start, as well as the Big East and national title races.

How does Fudd’s absence impact the Huskies? How does the lineup change?

The basketball world had just started to see what Fudd, a potentially generational talent, could be. That show isn’t over for the season, but it’ll be stuck on pause for the next 3-6 weeks.

UConn’s already thin backcourt just got thinner. The Huskies are down to four healthy guards: Nika Mühl, Lou Lopez Sénéchal, Caroline Ducharme and Inês Bettencourt. Outside of a really good burst against Iowa a few weeks ago, Ducharme hasn’t looked like herself as she returns from offseason hip surgery as well as neck stiffness that sidelined her for the season opener. Bettencourt, meanwhile, has played the fewest minutes of anyone on the team and isn’t poised to play a huge role.

Now would be the ideal time for Ducharme to play like the standout freshman she was last season when Fudd and Bueckers were hurt. A lot will fall on her and Lopez Sénéchal to be threats from the perimeter, while Mühl will likely have to shoulder even more responsibility as a ball handler and scorer. UConn also really could use Juhász back to at least make the frontcourt depth a bit more robust and to add another scorer into the fold. Her absence was missed Sunday in the loss to Notre Dame.

Geno Auriemma’s M.O. during the seemingly never-ending string of injuries the Huskies have suffered since last year is no one has to be Azzi Fudd or Paige Bueckers single-handedly, just that each person has to give a little bit more and be the best versions of themselves. No one player is likely to suddenly average 24.0 points (Fudd’s PPG heading into Notre Dame), but if everyone can collectively do their part, UConn has its best chance of coming out of this (relatively) unscathed.

The good news for UConn fans — at least for the short term — is the Huskies haven’t dropped consecutive games since 1993, and Mühl, Ducharme, Juhász and Aaliyah Edwards know what it takes from last year to navigate a horrible injury spell. — Philippou

What are the biggest challenges on the schedule while Fudd is out? How does this impact the Big East race?

If Fudd’s absence is in the shorter window of three weeks, she will miss at least four games: vs. Princeton (Thursday), at Maryland (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC), vs. Florida State in Uncasville, Connecticut (Dec. 18, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN), and vs. Seton Hall (Dec. 21).

Those teams are a combined 27-9, with the Terps (vs. Notre Dame) and Pirates (vs. Georgia and Marquette) having notable victories already. In short, these games all could present challenges for the Huskies without Fudd.

UConn travels to face No. 18 Creighton on Dec. 28, which is one day out from three weeks and projects as one of UConn’s more difficult Big East games. Then the Huskies finish 2022 back home against Marquette on Dec. 31.

It would seem likely that Fudd won’t play the rest of 2022, just because she and the Huskies have to be focused on her long-term future. But if Fudd is out the full six weeks, that puts her back around Jan. 17, meaning she would miss at least 11 games and possibly return Jan. 19 at Seton Hall.

Every Big East team has a winning record except Butler, which is 4-4, with St. John’s leading the way at 8-0. UConn lost a conference game last season (to Villanova), which was the Huskies’ first league defeat since 2013 and the breakup of the old Big East. UConn is still the Big East favorite, clearly, but Fudd’s absence is a concern in facing a league that has shown up well this season.

The Huskies’ marquee nonconference games in 2023 are at Tennessee on Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) and against No. 1 South Carolina on Feb. 5. The latter is a rematch of last season’s national championship game won by South Carolina, in which Fudd played 16 minutes and was held to three points.

The Gamecocks have looked very strong. That has not been the case for Tennessee, which is 4-5 and not ranked. Still, that is a rivalry game Fudd will very much want to be a part of, and it will be played a little over seven weeks from now. — Voepel

How does Fudd’s absence impact the rest of the women’s college basketball landscape?

With her start this season, Fudd was being mentioned in the national player of the year race, along with incumbent favorite, forward Aliyah Boston of South Carolina, and Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, who is leading Division I in scoring (28.2 PPG) for the second consecutive season.

Last year, the race came down to Boston and Clark after Bueckers was limited to 17 games because of a knee injury she suffered Dec. 5, 2021. That absence largely removed Bueckers from the NPOY conversation, and if Fudd is out for six weeks, it also could be the case for her. That said, Boston led her team to the national championship last season and was the clear choice.

If Fudd comes back strong, she could still be part of the race. As long as Boston and Clark stay healthy and as productive as they’ve long shown they are, they are still the top candidates. As for other players who might be considered, No. 2-ranked Stanford’s balance makes it a little difficult for one player to stand out, but Cameron Brink is probably their best candidate.

Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes is leading her No. 4-ranked team in scoring and rebounding, and is second in Division I in field goal percentage (69.6). And while No. 11 LSU has yet to face a ranked or Power 5 team, Angel Reese is leading Division I in rebounding (14.2) and is seventh in scoring average (23.1). — Voepel

How will Fudd’s absence impact UConn in Bracketology moving forward? What’s the ripple effect?

UConn is the fourth No. 1 seed in Tuesday’s Bracketology, and determining whether the Huskies or Ohio State should be in that final spot on the top line was the most time-consuming part of this week’s bracket projection. If the Huskies can win against a challenging schedule ahead, their status won’t change.

The important aspect to watch is if UConn struggles without Fudd and then begins to play well again upon her return. If that happens, and Fudd remains healthy heading into the NCAA tournament, the committee will measure those losses in her absence differently. They won’t be discounted, but the Huskies will be more strongly evaluated on the team they are with Fudd than without her.

Obviously, the longer Fudd is out, the more dubious UConn’s situation becomes if it is unable to beat teams like Maryland, Tennessee, Creighton and Villanova in the next month.

The bottom line is it all depends on how the Huskies play over the next three to six weeks, whether they can win against a challenging schedule ahead and how Fudd and UConn look upon her return. — Creme

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