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UConn Men’s Basketball Positional Preview: Guards

Great guard play has always been a staple of UConn men’s basketball, but will that continue this season?

UConn's Christian Vital (1) and Jalen Adams (4) during the Monmouth Hawks vs UConn Huskies men's college basketball game at the XL Center in Hartford, CT on December 2, 2017.
UConn’s Christian Vital (1) and Jalen Adams (4) during the Monmouth Hawks vs UConn Huskies men’s college basketball game at the XL Center in Hartford, CT on December 2, 2017.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

With the hiring of Dan Hurley, a new era of men’s basketball will begin at UConn as the Huskies seek to turn around the program following two straight losing seasons.

The one thing that will still apply in Storrs, though, will be the dependence on guard play—a trend that started with Jim Calhoun’s early teams and continued through the ups and downs of Kevin Ollie’s tenure. With two straight years of disappointment behind them, the Huskies backcourt has a lot of pressure to reinstate the team’s reputation.

Jalen Adams - Senior

The senior point guard has been the leader of the offense for two seasons now, and his role will remain unchanged as long as he remains healthy. His development last year saw one step backward for every step forward, as his increased ability to shoulder a bigger chunk of the offensive workload was marred by a newfound reticence as a playmaker and offensive facilitator. The lack of ball movement last season was partially Adams’ responsibility, and while a team can manage that if his shooting efficiency had improved, it only stayed at a similar rate to the previous season.

This year, with better coaching and a more focused effort from the players, that issue shouldn’t rear its ugly head again, and Adams can focus on translating his individual improvement into a style of on-ball offense that benefits the entire team. With the new benefit of Hurley’s incoming strategies, Adams should get more selective with his jumper as the team adds an emphasis on getting more shooters open. If his shot continues to improve, and he continues his aggressive tendencies with ball penetration, Adams could finally develop into the caliber of player he’s showed the potential of being.

Christian Vital - Junior

Vital, UConn’s 3-and-D specialist by default last season, has a streaky outside shot and is at his best offensively when he’s given the ball in rhythm rather than creating his own opportunities. He showed a lot of growth last season on the defensive end, often shutting down opposing guards at the point of attack and that progress should continue into his junior season.

What needs to improve drastically is his feel for the game. Last season, Vital often forced shots and was careless with the ball. While his aggressiveness on both ends is a major asset (he’s a great free throw shooter and has showed a real knack at drawing fouls), he’ll have to give up his single-minded tendencies if he’s going to continue to see the same volume of opportunities. A slightly diminished role for Vital might not be the worst thing for the Huskies, but that’s more a testament to their depth this season compared to last.

Alterique Gilbert - Redshirt Sophomore

A lot of the improved depth is due to the return of Alterique Gilbert from injury, as the redshirt sophomore has the talent of UConn’s great guards of yesteryear—but whether or not he retained his ability through two straight season-ending shoulder surgeries remains to be seen.

When playing, Gilbert has shown playmaking skill and good interior scoring ability, though his jump shot is unreliable. A player’s first two years in college are crucial years for development, and it’s hard to know where Gilbert is at this stage of his career. Consider him one of the team’s wild cards this season. His impact this season could range anywhere from game-changing spark plug to ineffective depth piece.

Brendan Adams - Freshman

Another of those wild cards is the team’s only true freshman, Brendan Adams. The younger brother of former St. Bonaventure standout Jaylen Adams, UConn’s second Adams has plenty of potential too.

A former Rhode Island commit, Brendan Adams decided to follow Hurley to UConn. Ranked just outside the top 100 on most 2018 recruiting rankings, the shooting guard doesn’t play like a gunner and typically tries to involve the whole offense.

His stroke is nice, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his shot will fall in his first year out of high school. The adjustment to college ball can be difficult for all but the most talented freshmen, but if he catches up to the difficulties of the more advanced level of basketball, he’ll be an effective player in Hurley’s rotation.

Tarin Smith - Graduate Transfer

The other newcomer in the backcourt, graduate transfer Tarin Smith, is almost guaranteed a featured role on the floor this year. Smith was the Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year last season following a solid campaign at Duquesne, where he played starter’s minutes even coming off the bench.

Smith is a pass-first guard that can score the ball when needed. Although he found a decent outside shot last season, he’s at his best on the interior with the ball. His turnover issues should, in theory, subside by playing with lineups better than Duquesne’s second unit and a backcourt featuring Smith and Vital could wreak havoc on opponents who have depth issues or foul trouble.

Dan Hurley will have more to work with in his backcourt rotation than Kevin Ollie did last year, and that’s one of many reasons to be optimistic about UConn’s chances this season. While it might be hard to tell exactly how good the guard play will be, they’re going to be the key to the Huskies’ offensive success this year. They’ll undoubtedly be under pressure. It’s up to them to figure out how best to handle it.