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UConn women No. 1 in Big East poll; Bueckers, Fudd also honored

New York — From one Big East Conference Preseason Freshman of the Year to the next, UConn sophomore Paige Bueckers, last year's recipient, was asked what advice she's been giving to Azzi Fudd, who gained the mantle on Tuesday under the bright lights at Madison Square Garden.

"Don't be afraid to mess up," said Bueckers, who went on to win national player of the year honors a year ago as UConn reached the Final Four for the unprecedented 13th straight season. "Coach is always going to be mad; he's always going to be yelling about something.

"So it's better to take risks. Try. Mess up. He's going to yell. Just brush it off. Just keep trying."

The UConn women's basketball team was named as the favorite to repeat as Big East champion, as the league's preseason coaches' poll and individual honors were announced.

Bueckers was the unanimous selection as Big East Preseason Player of the Year and Fudd was the consensus pick for Freshman of the Year. Senior guard Christyn Williams, senior forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa and sophomore forward Aaliyah Edwards were named to the 10-player Preseason All-Big East Team.

The Huskies, 28-2 last season after a loss to Arizona in the national semifinals in San Antonio, open the season Nov. 14 vs. Arkansas at the XL Center.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma calls Bueckers and Fudd, both national players of the year as high school seniors, "reluctant stars."

"They're not the kind of kids that come in and impose themselves on you or their program or their teammates," Auriemma said Tuesday, enveloped by members of the media. "They have to kind of be nudged in that direction."

Auriemma said Fudd, known for her precision as a shooter, has the same tendency to pass up an open shot the way Bueckers did last year, with him having to constantly remind her.

"Just the reluctance to take advantage of every time because they're open all the time," Auriemma said. "So that means that I would want them to shoot it all the time and that's not what they want to do."

A freshman All-American, Bueckers swept the Big East player and freshman awards at the end of last season, only the second player in program history to do so after UConn great Maya Moore (2008). Bueckers, a 5-foot-11 guard from Hopkins, Minnesota, averaged 20 points. 5.8 assists and 2.3 steals while converting 46.4% from 3-point range. She set the Huskies' single-game assist record with 14 on Feb. 27 at Butler.

Bueckers said she's trying to expand her leadership role, in general, but is more than happy to help Fudd, with whom she had a friendship before UConn — even helping to recruit Fudd to join her there. Fudd, a 5-11 guard from Arlington, Va., who will wear No. 35 at UConn, now assumes the same daunting expectations Bueckers handled so nobly last year.

"I think she's a little more not as outgoing as me," Bueckers said of Fudd. "She stays off social media, so she doesn't pay attention to that stuff too much. So I think she's really good at that stuff herself, but I know all about the outside pressure and everybody's expectations they have on me. I know that they're going to have great expectations on Azzi too.

"For me it was important to find somebody to talk to about that stuff. I think that's very important, just being able to be there when she needs to vent or when the pressure's getting too much."

Fudd said her first "welcome to college" moment came earlier in the summer when she was guarding Williams.

"She bumped me and I flew," Fudd reported with a laugh. "I've never flown in my life and I was like, 'Oh, she's kind of strong.' Since then I've tried to adjust. ... I thought I had a good basketball IQ and I've learned so much the last couple months just reading and learning to react. That kind of stuff is so much better than it was."

Auriemma said the expectations have been passed down through the generations in the UConn program, which has won 11 national championships. Now, they're passed from Bueckers to Fudd, not that Bueckers, with three seasons remaining, is off the hook just yet.

"I don't know that anyone can really prepare you for what's going to happen," Auriemma said. "Kids that are good get probably unfairly exalted and kids that don't live up to the expectation that's really high for them get something other than that.

"That's part of coming to school here and part of playing for our program. It's not for everyone but for those people that can meet those expectations, it's the most rewarding place in America to play."

UConn, which has won the Big East regular season 20 times and the postseason tournament 19 times, received 10 first-place votes for 100 points in the poll. DePaul was second with 90 points, followed by Seton Hall (80), Marquette (74) and Villanova (62).

v.fulkerson@theday.com 

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