UConn Could Surprise AAC Under Hurley
The Kevin Ollie era was not successful in UConn. Ollie went from a NCAA Championship, though many will remind you they were not “his guys,” to 8th place in the AAC in his final season. Ollie failed to bring in major recruits, and left with an investigation hanging over the program. In an effort to rebuild their program, the Huskies brought in Dan Hurley and they’re already seeing dividends.
Last week, UConn received commitments from a pair of Hoop Group alumni, James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney. All of Hurley’s best teams have strong guard play; Bouknight and Gaffney are the first two ingredients for success with a new head coach. But that’s next year, for now let’s look at what to expect from the Huskies this season.
The good news is that UConn doesn’t need to wait for next year to have a good backcourt. The Huskies, if healthy, can have one of the best backcourts in the conference. Jalen Adams was third in the American in scoring at 18.1 points a game last season. In addition, he led the Huskies in assists and minutes. There’s no denying he is the most pivotal part of this team. His backcourt mate, Christian Vital, tallied 14.9 points a contest last year. Combined, the duo was actually the highest scoring backcourt in the AAC. That’s saying something in a league with Wichita State, Cincinnati, Houston and others. WIth Hurley, these two should be the best guards in the conference again.
The X-factor in the backcourt will be Alterique Gilbert. Gilbert is a former McDonald’s All-American out of high school who has suffered season ending in each of his first two seasons. Now, having redshirted, he’s looking to be on the court for his sophomore season. If he can stay healthy he adds a burst of athleticism to an already talented group. It adds some depth, and if nothing else, doesn't force Adams onto the court for a full 40 minutes night in and night out.
UConn may have great guard success this season, but they will likely struggle in the frontcourt. Terry Larrier was second in minutes last season, mainly because he was the only semi-established post option. He’s gone and the players returning are inexperienced and unproven. Josh Carlton may be the first shot at replacing Larrier. The 6’8 sophomore played 15 minutes last year, and averaged a modest 4 points and 4 rebounds. He really came into his own though in the second half of the season. If he carried that momentum into the offseason, he could have a nice sophomore season.
Adding support in the paint will be graduate transfer Kassoum Yakwe. The former St John’s center is 6’7, extremely long and an excellent shot blocker. He may not have a major role in his one season as a Husky, but if nothing else he will be a rim protector for the defensive minded Hurley. Another St John's tranfer joining for his first season is Sidney Wilson. The former St. Raymond's wing, Wilson never played for the Red Storm, but enrolled in summer classes prior to last season and was forced to sit out when he elected to transfer. Wilson is a 6’7 athletic wing. He has insane bounce and will provide versatility for the Huskies.
Things are not going to change over night. Connecticut’s strengths will still be their strengths this season, and their weaknesses will be their weaknesses. That said, the Huskies do have talent, and the fortune of playing in a down AAC this year. With Hurley’s defensive mind and ability to get his players to play hard, UConn could finish as high as fourth in the conference. Fifth or sixth may be more realistic, but I’m not going to ignore an upgraded head coach and the talent at the guard positions. Either way, things will be going in the right direction this year in Storrs.