There are a lot of things that have gone wrong for UConn this season. Injuries have been big, as has poor strategy, as has pretty much everything else, let’s face it. The team is barely treading water right now at just a single game above .500, and there are so many areas where improvement isn’t just possible, but seems like it should have been inevitable.
That’s a failure on the coaching staff, because teams this talented are so rarely this bad. UConn is unquestionably talented, even after transfers, but the results don’t transfer to the court, and the players don’t improve after each season. It’s the black mark hanging over Kevin Ollie’s tenure as head coach, and it’s going to impair his ability to even recruit, one of the only things he’s been able to do productively, going forward.
Despite pulling in high profile recruits, UConn has not been able to develop their players the way other teams have. In 2014, the Huskies signed a consensus top-20 recruit in Daniel Hamilton. He was solid but unspectacular in his two seasons in Storrs, showing off solid passing skills but never improving his scoring ability. Then he left for the NBA, getting drafted in the late second round, and making his debut this season, playing two games before being sent back down to the G League.
Now here’s the problem. Hamilton’s status as a top-20, five-star recruit means something; obviously not all of these players pan out (there’s one notable exception in his recruiting class), but the potential and ability is there for this player to become a star. The 19 other members of the top 20 in Hamilton’s class have averaged 116 games played in the NBA, including two members who are still in college, and one other who reached the NBA but only played eight games. Only four of the top 20 have yet to establish themselves as NBA players; Hamilton is one of them.
Jalen Adams was ranked 20th in his recruiting class, since he’s another player with great talent and high potential. The ten players who ranked 21-30 in his class include six players who have already become regular NBA players and two more who are signed with NBA teams. Two more are still in college ball, one who has struggled, and another who is likely the best player on a St. John’s team that is about as good as UConn. Again in 2015, UConn’s best recruit did not develop like the rest of his peers.
UConn’s second-best recruit in 2015 didn’t fare any better. Steven Enoch was ranked 62nd that season. One player from the 60-70 range has already been a first round NBA draft pick. One is leading a high-profile college team in scoring, five others are quality contributors to strong tournament-bound teams, and another is a starter on a power-conference team. One more chose not to attend college, and the last is a decent player for a pretty good San Diego State team. Enoch was UConn’s worst scholarship player in his two seasons before transferring. Again, UConn found the odd man out.
2016 is tough to figure out, as Alterique Gilbert lost a lot of development time with two major injuries, and UConn’s other ranked members of the class have already transferred. 2017 isn’t any easier to draw conclusions from, given that all the players are only freshmen, but it’s worth noting that of the 10 players in Tyler Polley’s range, only one is averaging fewer points per game than he is.
See the pattern here? Despite pulling in talented recruits, Ollie has consistently failed to develop them into better players. When one player doesn’t develop, there’s something unique to his situation that prevented his progression. When an entire team of players doesn’t improve, it’s impossible to put the blame anywhere but the coaching staff.
With this year’s top incoming recruit, James Akinjo, continuing to impress scouts even after more and more hype, the coaching staff at UConn has to figure it out. Continuing the same strategies that have failed for every single other player is a fool’s errand, and it is imperative that Ollie and his assistants—or the UConn athletic department—start getting this right.