Mike Crispino Blog
March 17, 2020
Year two of the Dan Hurley project, paid dividends from February 1 on , as the Huskies ripped off 9 wins in their last 12 games to finish the season 19-12 and 10-8 in the AAC. What made the resurgence startling was the fact the Huskies accomplished much of the turnaround without 2 starters , who went down with season ending injuries.Tyler Polley was leading the Huskies in 3 point shooting at 40%. when he tore an ACL in practice. The team fell into a slide losing 4 games by a total of 17 pts! Akok Akok went down next with a torn Achilles vs Memphis at the XL Center. The team came together in front of a raucous XL center crowd and at that moment you had a sense something was brewing with this team. The Huskies then rallied to beat the Tigers, on the strength of James Bouknight and Christian Vital combining for 40 pts.
When the Huskies lost in double OT to Xavier at the Charleston Classic and by 3 to Indiana ,turning the ball over 26 times at MSG, it seemed as if the UConn was destined for mediocrity but things changed with the insertion of Freshmen Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight into prominent roles. Bouknight proved to be an explosive scorer and Gaffney provided a steady hand at point guard.With Akok out , Isiah Whaley took on a starting role, and was a revelation averaging nearly a double-double! UConn played with essentially 7 men for the final 7 games , winning 6 behind Christian Vital and James Bouknight scoring big , Brendan Adams and Alterique Gilbert coming off the bench to fuel the late season surge and Isiah Whaley stepping his game up with ferocious offensive rebounding , shot blocking and timely scoring.
The Coronavirus put an abrupt end to the run, as the Huskies had improved their record as well as Net Rating, Ken Pom, and ESPN BPI. As the AAC tournament was about to begin, UConn had positioned itself as a team in the NCAA Tournament conversation. In the process UConn defeated 5 straight opponents in rematches after losing in the first game.
What’s ahead for UConn as they return to the Big East? A tougher schedule loaded with high level teams. At seasons end, the AAC had one team in the top 40 Net Rating. While the Big East had 7 teams 40 or below. There will be 20 Conference games next year, 10 home, 10 Away. A balancedschedule with numerous top 25 opponents. The Big East tournament will be rock and roll college basketball at its best. UConn will need to upgrade their roster before next Fall and there is a good chance that Dan Hurley will bring one or two late signees to the UConn campus this spring. He is targeting Graduate transfers and upperclassman, with the primary needs being a big guard who can shoot, and a power forward-4 man who can score and defend.
There are 4 players in place in who will make a difference next year.
RJ Cole a junior guard who transferred from Howard University will assume point guard duties after sitting out this season as a red shirt. He is an excellent shooter and passer. Andre Jackson is a freshman and super athlete at 6’6” from Albany who should make an immediate impact as a playmaking guard/forward . Kevonte Brown-Ferguson is a 7 footer from Canada with a huge upside. If not as a freshman , certainly by his sophomore year. Richie Springs has been on campus all season, and can fill a power forward/center role starting next Fall as a strong rebounder and defender. The futures of Akok Akok and Tyler Polley are to be determined as both rehab from serious injuries. Tyler should be available by seasons start and Akok has a chance to start competing in games by January of 2021. However there is no guaranteethat both will come back 100% . Another x-factor is Alterique Gilbert who adapted well as a capable substitute off the bench. Will he play at UConn for a final season of eligibility? Josh Carleton will be a senior presence. He was an effective offensive rebounder and looks to build on his 8pts 6reb average during the teams 31 games.
Dan Hurley after two years has restored UConn as a brand to be respected and ready to reenter the top 25. It’s a culture of intensity, mental toughness, and will to win. With this being said, replacing senior leadership will not be easy. By the end of his senior season, Christian Vital had emerged not only as a statistical leader but an emotional one as well. One of the seasons only downers was Vital and the Huskies were not be able to pursue an AAC title in their final season in the conference. Hurley’s coaching acumen and infectious spirit became a huge asset in Year 2 manifesting itself in the rapid development of the 3 freshmen as well as the emerging skill set of Isiah Whaley, who became a key component of the teams rise in February and March. Vitals’ strong finish (he was #2 in scoring #1 in FT% and Steals positioned him as a legitimate Player of the Year candidate in the AAC.
If UConn had won a couple more close ones, (they lost 7 of their first 9 decided by 7 or less)
Before winning 5 of their last 7 close ones , the Huskies would have been off all the bubbles !
Or if they were able to reverse the 4-7 mark in games decided by 5 or less, or the 1-4 overtime record. UConn could have been 22-9 and a serious post season candidate. Now, its wait ‘til next year, with the positive thought that the groundwork has been laid for a return to the Big East.