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UConn Men’s Basketball Positional Preview: Guards

They don’t call us Guard U for nothing.

Ian Bethune

Most collegiate backcourts would not be able to withstand the loss of a do-it-all playmaker who averaged 12 points per game, another 12 point-per-game scorer on top of that, plus a couple of complimentary bench pieces that both made over 35% of their three-point attempts.

Then again, most collegiate backcourts are not UConn’s.

The Huskies lost Daniel Hamilton to the NBA, Sterling Gibbs and Omar Calhoun to graduation, and Sam Cassell Jr. to Iona. While UConn’s guard crew will be leaning on two inexperienced players, their potential is quite exciting.

This year’s crop, led by returnees Rodney Purvis and Jalen Adams along with newcomers Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital, should be better right from the get-go.

It all starts and ends with Adams—that goes for both the backcourt and, quite possibly, the entire team.

Adams’ freshman season totals will keep you seated: 7.3 PPG, 87 assists against 60 turnovers, and a 27% showing from behind the arc, making just 12 three-pointers all year. He started less than a third UConn’s games and earned KenPom Game MVP in just one contest. He bickered with Kevin Ollie, most notably in the disheartening Temple game in Philadelphia that saw the five-star freshman get benched for most of the second half, watching helplessly as his team squandered a big lead in the road loss.

If you gave up on Adams around early-February, however, you missed quite the show.

The numbers don’t give his improved play the slightest bit of justice (9.8 PPG in his final eleven games—three starts), but it was him getting into the lane at will, producing buckets when his team was most starved of one, and the fact that Hamilton learned to defer to Adams in certain crucial junctures—oh yeah, there was that 65-foot shot of the year, too—that validates all the hype surrounding Adams heading into his sophomore campaign.

That hype isn’t just confined to UConn fans, either. Adams, who didn’t even make the AAC All-Rookie Team last year, is one of 20 floor generals on the preseason watch list for the Bob Cousy Award for the nation’s top point guard.

Adams must improve upon his decision making, perimeter jumper, and work on getting to the free throw line more (86% FT, just 51 attempts last year).

The good news is that he has help right beside him, in the form of a second Alpha Dog—perhaps his head coach’s second most favorite thing in the world behind Ollieisms.

It’s unknown if Alterique Gilbert will start alongside Adams right away, but they will certainly be on the floor together for extended stretches.

After all, two point guards side-by-side on the floor has worked out alright for the UConn program in the very recent past, don’t you think?

Gilbert, who ended up as the No. 34 overall incoming recruit per Rivals, is quite familiar with Adams already, as the two played together at a Nike camp a few years back.

The 12th McDonald’s All-American in program history, Gilbert is a 6-foot blur with elite ball skills, an enviable competitive drive and the willingness to lead—the last of which has already drawn praise from Ollie.

“I think he’s going to be an outstanding leader for us from day one,” said KO.

Gilbert dislocated his left shoulder in the Jordan Brand Classic back in April, leading to surgery on May 6, but he spent the summer rehabbing and appears to be all-systems-go.

The young guns at point guard will benefit from the steady presence of Purvis, UConn’s leading scorer last year at 12.8 points per game, who has a lot riding on his shoulders this season. The redshirt senior has carved out a nice role for himself while increasing his Offensive Rating from 94.9 to 106.5 last year.

As the only returning starter from the Huskies’ postseason lineup, Purvis needs to take on a veteran-like approach in the consistency department this season—he was simply too mercurial in 2015-2016.

He will be playing this season with a very heavy heart. Look no further than his new jersey number: 15. That’s in honor of Tyrek Coger, an Oklahoma State basketball player and a brother-like figure to Purvis—Purvis’ mother was Coger’s godmother—who died suddenly due to an enlarged heart following a team workout in July. The two were scheduled to meet each other on the court at this year’s Maui Invitational.

Purvis, who currently projects as the 53rd pick this June, wisely elected not to hire an agent after experimenting with the NBA Draft process last spring. Perhaps an area of improvement addressed in the feedback he received was to improve upon his rebounding.

Ollie wants Purvis, whose 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame suggests he’d be well-suited as a tailback, to follow in the footsteps of Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier, and Ryan Boatright as far as their rebounding prowess is concerned. Purvis has averaged 2.7 rebounds per game thru two seasons in Storrs—Ollie thinks his “Ferrari” is capable of pulling five or six boards per night.

“I just want him to play at another level,” Ollie said of Purvis. “I want him to play with a Level-5 experience every day. He’s our only proven scorer coming back. He knows what it takes.”

UConn was 16-2 when Purvis scored at least 13 points last season, compared to a 9-9 record when he scored 12 or fewer points.

The unheralded member of the backcourt and “Top-5”—the nickname that UConn’s incoming recruiting class has pegged for themselves—is Christian Vital.

Vital, a former UNLV commit who backed out of his pledge when Dave Rice was shown the door, is a shooter and lockdown defender. Somewhat of the gritty underdog, high-intangibles type, the No. 145 overall recruit per Rivals has drawn comparisons to Ollie himself.

Vital, who hails from Queens Village, has all the makings of a steal on the recruiting trail. He’s another youngster already acclimated to some of his teammates, having played with Steven Enoch at St. Thomas More while also playing AAU ball with Terry Larrier.

With Purvis, Adams, and Gilbert factoring heavily into the rotation, the Huskies should see most of their playmaking and scoring coming from this unit. The keys for success will be whether Purvis can be a more consistent scorer and if Adams can take a leap after a promising freshman campaign. With Kevin Ollie leading the way, it’s hard not to like our chances of this group shaping up to be the strength of this team.