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Is Connecticut star Paige Bueckers the best player in the NCAA tournament?

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The sports world doesn’t focus too well. Related: Does anyone these days?

This is not about social media or the death of monoculture. That’s not only well-trodden ground, but trampled by a million footsteps. How, though, does Paige Bueckers go from the top of the women’s basketball world to where she is now, near the public consciousness but not quite there anymore?

The short answer, maybe, is Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, JuJu Watkins. But the long answer is a bit more layered.

“We have the best player in America,” Geno Auriemma, Bueckers’s coach at Connecticut, said last week. “And, you know, just saying that because the numbers, in this world of analytics, the numbers say that she is. And the whole stat sheet says that she is.”

A few days later, Dawn Staley, coach of undefeated South Carolina, said: “I think Paige is probably the elitist basketball player to ever grace our game. You look at her efficiency, she doesn’t take bad shots.”

Now, after beating Duke, 53-45, on Saturday in the Sweet 16, U-Conn. and Bueckers are a win away from the Final Four. They face Watkins and top-seeded USC at Moda Center on Monday. Bueckers, the third-seeded Huskies’ 6-foot guard, played all 40 minutes against the Blue Devils, scoring a game-high 24 points. She nailed back-to-back threes in a 10-point third quarter. She banged around in the paint, playing big for a squad that is down six contributors. But even with U-Conn. in the mix — with her influence so plainly obvious — coaches and teammates are still stumping for Bueckers, as if she’s not getting enough credit from whoever’s credit would satisfy them.

Why? Hard to say, of course, but Bueckers didn’t just have two major left knee injuries in the span of about eight months. She suffered two major knee injuries while women’s college basketball exploded in popularity. First it was a tibial plateau fracture and meniscus tear in December 2021. Then, in August 2022, she tore her ACL, ending her third college season before it began. Three years ago, calling her the best player in the country might have been met with a shrug. She was, after all, the first freshman to win the Naismith, Associated Press and Wooden player of the year awards. But while Bueckers healed, Clark became Caitlin Clark. Reese and Clark met in last year’s national final, sparking weeks-long debates about how to win and lose.

That night, when LSU beat Iowa for the title, while Bueckers was still recovering from the ACL tear, she watched from her apartment in Storrs, Conn. But she almost skipped the game entirely, feeling so frustrated she couldn’t be a part of it.

“I love watching basketball, so that’s why I put it on,” Bueckers said this week in Portland. “But I thought really hard about avoiding it. I wasn’t in the best place. I just wanted to be on the court again.”

“Paige would come to the practice facility every day last year to do her rehab and watch practice or whatever,” Auriemma said Saturday night. “And she was always the most upbeat, positive person in the gym. You knew that when she went home, she was a completely different person. You knew that it was killing her and tearing her apart. But great players like that, they carry a light around with them.”

The setbacks haven’t seemed to stunt Bueckers’s earning potential. She has signed name, image and likeness (NIL) deals with Nike, Bose, Gatorade and Dunkin’, among many other companies. She is returning to U-Conn. next season, whereas Clark and Stanford’s Cameron Brink — two other NIL stars — are headed for the WNBA draft in mid-April. Bueckers is averaging a career-high 21.8 points per game, up from 20 in that dominant freshman year. And though her assists are down a tick, she has increased her rebounds, blocks and production at the line.

By necessity, because of the circumstances, she has evolved.

“I bet you if you asked USC, they wouldn’t tell you Caitlin Clark is the best player. I bet if you asked LSU, they wouldn’t tell you. I bet you if you asked Texas, they wouldn’t tell you,” Auriemma said Friday, before U-Conn. took down Duke. “I think every coach thinks the player that’s on their team that’s helping them the most is the best player. Listen, I’ve coached the best player in the country a lot more than anybody else coaching in this tournament. It’s okay for somebody else to say their player is.

“If you go by stats, if you go by efficiency, if you go by the entire box score and what she means to our team playing power forward, I think she’s done more for our team than anybody else could have … I wouldn’t trade her for anybody else.”

It’s not fair, to Bueckers or Clark, to count any praise for Bueckers as a slight to Iowa’s point guard. Neither Auriemma nor Staley made the connection, even if their efficiency arguments could seem like a dig at how much Clark shoots. There are also more than two stars left in the tournament, let alone in women’s basketball at large. There is Watkins, USC’s stud freshman, and there’s Reese, one of LSU’s many engines. There’s Texas freshman Madison Booker. There’s Kamilla Cardoso, South Carolina’s 6-7 anchor, on a team that hasn’t lost.

But the intrigue of U-Conn.-Iowa, of Bueckers getting back to the Final Four, is hard to ignore. If the Hawkeyes beat LSU on Monday, then the Huskies take USC in the late game, that’s what would happen. In an odd way, it would feel like a battle of past and present, no matter that Bueckers will remain in college after Clark leaves. Bueckers’s story, far from linear, is tricky for the narrative machine. So she’s seeing about resetting it.

“Last year, I felt at times like I had just disappeared,” Bueckers said. “It’s hard. You’re recovering in the background and it’s super lonely. But I leaned on my faith a lot, knowing I would eventually be back. And being back feels great.”

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