Paige Bueckers is in championship-or-bust mode.
"National championship, that's it," the UConn Huskies star told Bleacher Report when asked what would make a successful 2022-23 season. "I don't think you're going to get a different answer out of me. Getting to the Final Four my freshman year and the national championship last year, the only thing left to do is win it. So that's the goal."
That would be the natural progression for the third-year guard after she became the first woman to win the Wooden Award as the nation's best player as a freshman and then reached the national title game as a sophomore, only to lose to South Carolina.
She also took home the Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year, Big East Player of the Year and Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player during an outstanding freshman campaign that saw her average 20.0 points, 5.7 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game while shooting 52.4 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from distance.
While Bueckers' second season was overshadowed by a knee injury she suffered during a December win over Notre Dame, she still returned in time for the NCAA tournament and scored in double figures in five of the Huskies' six games, including when she dropped 27 to defeat North Carolina State in the Elite Eight and clinch a second straight Final Four trip.
"Last year, we found out and learned what it takes to get there," she said. "I think now we know once we get there what to do with it. I think it will be a lot better just having that experience in getting there and making sure we get there again this season and have a different result. I'm hoping for a much healthier season this year just so we can have some continuity and consistency throughout the lineup."
That lack of continuity was a major storyline for UConn.
Bueckers missed 19 games with her knee injury that required surgery, played just 13 minutes in each of the final two regular-season games after she returned, and then averaged 15 minutes per game in the Big East tournament before resuming more of a normal workload in the Big Dance.
Fellow guard Azzi Fudd also didn't play from Nov. 22 until Jan. 26.
"I'm feeling healthy," Bueckers said. "Last summer, I had the ankle injury, and then the knee injury during the season, so I'm excited to be healthy."
A healthy Bueckers and Fudd combination will be key if UConn is going to live up to the guard's goal and win the program's 12th national championship.
So will the talented new faces within the program.
While the Huskies lost Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Evina Westbrook from last season's team, they landed Ayanna Patterson and Isuneh Brady in the 2022 recruiting class. Patterson is the No. 4 prospect in ESPN's rankings, while Brady is No. 5.
"The freshmen are really good," Bueckers said. "They're aggressive, they play hard, they play with energy. I'm excited to start playing with them more and starting to build chemistry with them."
UConn also brought in an impact transfer in Fairfield's Lou Lopez Senechal, who was the MAAC Player of the Year in 2021-22 and a three-time MAAC first-team selection.
"Lou's great. You can tell she's experienced and has been there before and done this," Bueckers said. "She fits right in really well. She's a great scorer and a great playmaker."
When she isn't building chemistry with her new teammates on the court, Bueckers is helping promote equity off it.
She partnered with Gatorade as part of its Fuel Tomorrow campaign that strives to improve access to sports while providing resources to fight inequity.
.<a href="https://twitter.com/paigebueckers1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@paigebueckers1</a> has one goal in mind: To be the best. Whether it’s being the best player on the court or the best role model she can be, Paige has the mindset to <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/FuelTomorrow?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#FuelTomorrow</a> by being a positive influence for her generation and the next to come. <a href="https://t.co/CqXnkHT3Az">pic.twitter.com/CqXnkHT3Az</a>
The UConn star also signed a multiyear deal with Gatorade in November 2021, becoming the company's first signed college player. She was previously named the Gatorade Player of the Year in high school.
"It's all still crazy to me, just the whole NIL experience," Bueckers said. "I've actually had an opportunity to build a relationship with Gatorade through high school and the player of the year program. Obviously working with them before has been amazing, but to actually team up with them and be a part of their organization and have a deal with them is surreal to me. I'm very fortunate and blessed and grateful to be a part of it and work with them."
As part of their partnership, Gatorade designed a bottle that is tailored to her game and personality. It features a bright color palette that represents the joy she brings to the court, a fist pump to illustrate how important equal opportunity is to her, a nod to her game-day braids, a reminder to pursue one's dreams and a personal phrase with a connection to her father.
"It's extremely important because it talks about my whole journey through basketball," Bueckers said of the bottle. "They did an extremely great job designing it, and we had great communication throughout the whole process. There's a lot of things unique to me and unique to my journey. There are a lot of details like the 'Be you, be great.' That's a huge thing for me. That's what my dad always texts me before games, and it's something that I live by. The bright pink and purple and blue colors just pop, and I love colorful. It's sort of a vibe for me. The 'IF' is on the court, which signifies kids dreaming about their 'what ifs' and their big goals. For me, it was 'what if I make the USA Team' or 'what if I play at my dream school at UConn' or 'what if I make the WNBA?' Those are huge goals for me. People who look at me as a role model, just for them to know they can achieve their dreams as well. There's a lot of unique designs; there's a blue and pink overlapping, which sort of signifies my game-day braids. And the fist signifies to me everybody getting an equal and fair chance, hopefully, to have these opportunities and be what they want to be and dream who they want to be and where they want to be."
The personalized bottle only adds to Bueckers' star power, and she has a UConn legend to lean on to help her navigate the opportunities and challenges that come with it.
She was one of the Huskies who visited with Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart when the Seattle Storm were in Connecticut to face the Sun on June 17. Bird, who is one of the greatest players in basketball history and a UConn legend, announced the 2022 season will be the last of her iconic career.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
"I see an endless ceiling... She definitely has that clutch gene."<br><br>Sue Bird on Paige Bueckers<br><br>Watch her live interview with <a href="https://twitter.com/TaylorRooks?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TaylorRooks</a> now in the B/R app <a href="https://t.co/ZRQtC6wtfJ">https://t.co/ZRQtC6wtfJ</a> <a href="https://t.co/n340LAjZCw">pic.twitter.com/n340LAjZCw</a>
Bird's 13th All-Star selection this season marked the most in WNBA history, and her resume includes four WNBA titles, five Olympic gold medals, two collegiate championships and a Naismith Player of the Year before she was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2002 WNBA draft.
The Storm guard is one of the reasons UConn is the gold standard of the sport, and she remains a resource for the current team.
"She's one of the greatest to ever play the game," Bueckers said. "Having her come through UConn, it's been amazing to build that relationship with her. She's so humble. She's so kind. She doesn't act any different because of who she is. She's still nice to us and super communicative with us. Last year after we lost was disappointing, but she actually talked to us after the loss and was super helpful in telling us that 'it's all part of the plan, it's all part of the process. And you'll look back in 10 years and think of how much you've learned from it.' She tried to help us stay positive in a moment where you can look at all the negatives. She's been super helpful with me just being able to have someone to talk to who has been there and done that and seen all the things that I have yet to see."
If everything goes according to plan, one of those things will be winning a national championship this season.