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Frontcourt Play Could Be Key To UConn’s Success

Josh Carlton’s big game might not be a fluke.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Guard play is such an essential part of UConn’s historical success that it sometimes seems like it’s one of the school’s trademarks. Everyone can name off a list of great guards in the program’s history, including NBA greats, future head coaches, and college legends among them.

But with Dan Hurley entering the picture as head coach, a lot of things are changing in Storrs. One of those changes might be a diminishing dependance on perimeter play.

Of course, the Huskies will still have good perimeter players; all successful basketball teams must. But their success might not come down to a make-or-break scenario based on how well the ballhandlers and outside shooters perform in any given game. Even as the highest level of basketball shifts to an inside-out game oriented around outside shooting, the Huskies might count on their forwards to pick up a bigger portion of the workload, using big men to free the guards rather than the other way around.

Take a look at Josh Carlton, for example. Last season, Carlton was the team’s best overall defensive option but was rarely a factor on offense, and his playing time changed frequently. In the season opener against Morehead State this year, Carlton was again a standout on defense, but he also led the team in scoring. The Huskies played well, and likely would have won had Carlton only had an average game, but his excellent all-around performance guided the Huskies to a comfortable win instead of a close one.

Of course, there have been dominant UConn big men in the past—Emeka Okafor comes to mind—and Jim Calhoun’s teams once led the nation in blocked shots per game for several years straight. Hurley’s Huskies look like they might be on that path, with eight blocks in the win over Morehead State, a mark that totals 24th in Division I, even as many teams have already played more than one game.

Before his injury, Isaiah Whaley blocked two shots in the span of just over a minute, leaving him with the incredibly rare stat of a 100 percent block percentage. When he recovers, he’ll be a big part of the defense too; he’s a terrific help defender and showed tremendous chemistry with Carlton last season.

Eric Cobb didn’t make much of an impact on Thursday night, but will likely have a bigger role as the season goes on. Cobb is the most versatile of the UConn big men and perhaps the only big man on the roster with shooting range. Against bigger teams, he could play next to Carlton without sacrificing floor spacing on the offensive end.

Hurley seems happy to play lineups with two guards and two wings, or three guards and one wing, which leaves only one spot on the floor unless one of the big men can develop a usable outside game. That, though, doesn’t mean the roles of the big men are any less important. In fact, it might mean just the opposite. With only one post defender in the lineup and shorter help defense swinging in, the rim can be vulnerable to attack, raising the importance of the center’s performance.

More than anything else, that’s why Carlton was so impressive on Thursday night. It’s not just that he was unexpectedly the team’s highest scorer, it’s that he did it while shouldering so much of the workload on the opposite end too. If he, Cobb, Whaley and Kassoum Yakwe can collectively approximate that level of play for the rest of the season, the Huskies will be in great shape.