Connecticut Post (Sunday)
How freshman Fudd manages life in limelight
Azzi Fudd, the nation’s No. 1 recruit of the Class of 2021, is about two weeks of practices into her UConn career.
In that time, she’s been introduced to the monumental hype and sky-high expectations that come along with the program.
She was introduced as a Husky for the first time in front of a near 8,000-person crowd at First Night. Her name alone unleashed an uproar of screams and cheers from students as she walked out on stage.
Less than a week later, she sat in front of a large crowd of reporters on the court of Madison Square Garden for Big East media day. She posed for photos and team interviews and was named the conference’s preseason Freshman of the Year.
It’s a lot for anyone, let alone an 18-year-old.
“I don’t know that anyone really can prepare you for what’s going to happen,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Our program, there’s a lot of attention paid to it relative to anybody else in the country for that matter …
“But that’s part of coming to school here and part of playing in 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.”
Fudd has taken all the attention and kept her head down. She’s focused on remaining true to herself and has learned how to cope with the attention and the expectation of hard work that comes with being a Husky.
“I don’t understand people with egos or who are full of themselves,” she said. “I also think I haven’t done anything in college yet. All I’ve done is practice and practice against practice players, so I also have no right to act any type of way. But even if I do well this season, I wouldn’t change the person I am or how I act.”
Fudd became a household name before she stepped foot in Storrs. She was a McDonald’s All American and the first sophomore to win Gatorade’s National Player of the Year. She’s won three gold medals with Team USA, most recently in the 2021 FIBA U19 World Cup in August.
Over 150,000 people follow
her every post on Instagram, with over 10,000 more monitoring her on Twitter.
Whether through the screen or on the court, the countless eyes on her every move create a pressure similar to that of her UConn teammate and friend, Paige Bueckers.
Bueckers was also a household name before arriving at college, and her star rose as she swept the 2021 national player of the year awards, so recognizes the attention on Fudd. As a freshman last fall, Bueckers would often walk into Auriemma’s office just needing to vent about dealing with all the pressure.
“He knows a lot about pressure too so just being able to go to his office and talk about it whenever I’m getting overwhelmed sort of calms me down,” Bueckers said.
The sophomore plans on being that person for Fudd because she knows first-hand how important it is to talk through these experiences.
“For me it was important to find somebody to talk to about that stuff,” Bueckers said. “Just being able to be there when she needs to vent or when the pressure is getting too much, I think that’s important for me to be able to be there for her.”
The two already shared a close friendship prior to Fudd arriving in Storrs. But relating to each other on such a unique level now has brought them closer together. Bueckers tells Fudd to ignore the outside voices. She tells her to direct all her focus instead on the court, on what she can control versus what she can’t.
“Paige does a good job about being honest about all of it but then also she knows I get nervous, so (she’s) reassuring me and calming my nerves,” Fudd said. “She tells me to stay focused, to not worry about all the outside noise. That the only opinions that matter are from the coaches and our teammates and not to get distracted by the social media and everything outside.”
And if Fudd ever gets too caught up in the limelight, Auriemma is always there to bring her back down to earth.
Just weeks into her time in Storrs, Fudd has already been yelled at by Auriemma in practice for poor defense and bad passing, along with waiting too long to shoot or even passing up the shot.
“One of the characteristics that Azzi has that is very similar to Paige is they’re very reluctant stars,” Auriemma said. “They’re not the kind of kids that come in and impose themselves on you or the program or their teammates. They have to be kind of nudged in that direction. She’s very much of a thinker. She wants to make sure everything is exactly right before she throws herself in there. Shooting the ball, even that, as great as a shooter as she is.”
Fudd knows better than to argue back. She instead takes the moment to learn. From the team’s summer session to beginning its fall preseason practices, Fudd has already improved her strength on the court and her basketball IQ.
“She’s really easy to play with, any of us can say it,” Bueckers said. “When you pass to her, she makes it. Anybody would love to play with her. She has a really high IQ. She plays hard. She plays with effort. She has a great work ethic and I think our games just mesh really well with our guard abilities that we have.”
It’s no surprise the Big East coaches selected her as unanimous choice for preseason freshman of the year. But Fudd isn’t one to focus on honors, especially growing up with her parents as coaches and knowing her mom’s background in the sport — Katie Smrcka-Duffy Fudd was a former WNBA player and the 1997 ACC Freshman of the Year at NC State.
“We don’t look at awards like that. We’re not focused on that ... kind of just overall performance,” Fudd said at Big East media day. “I think it’s really cool because I get to be here and experience this, but at the same time it doesn’t really mean much because I haven’t stepped foot yet on the court for a real game.”