Basketball is a team sport. We all know this, of course, and yet sometimes we attribute team results to one player, or we hold every player equally responsible for the team’s results. In a good season, that’s how you get misconceptions like “[this player] won the championship for the team.” In a bad season, that’s how you get misplaced complaints like “[the team’s best player] doesn’t want to win” or “everyone on the team stinks.”
None are accurate, of course, but the line of thinking required to end up at these beliefs has been common orthodoxy among basketball fans for generations, and sometimes it takes those beliefs to be challenged for the consensus to shift.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t some element of truth, of course. In order for a team to struggle, some players have to play poorly. And whether it’s ability or injury or effort, some combination of the three or other factors, one big reason for UConn’s struggles this year has been players who have not performed to expectations.
One player who should escape any criticism for the team’s problems, however, is Christian Vital. He’s far from a perfect player, to be clear; he’s only a sophomore and there are some gaps in his game. But on every level, he avoids the categories in which UConn players can be fairly criticized.
All things considered, Vital might be the Huskies’ most effective player this season. Time and time again, the team struggles without him on the floor, forcing Kevin Ollie to increase his playing time to near- Jalen Adams levels. Vital is the best perimeter defender on the UConn roster, one of only two reliable 3-point shooters, and a consistent, versatile scoring option.
In conference play, Vital has both the highest offensive rating and defensive rating among UConn perimeter players. The Huskies need Vital on the floor more than any other single player on the team.
While the cause of the relative lack of growth among UConn players has been hotly debated, whether you think most of the blame lies with the players or the coaching staff, it would be hard to argue that Vital hasn’t outperformed expectations. Vital was forced to drastically increase his offensive workload this season, and he’s risen to the challenge, increasing his true shooting percentage, his play on both ends of the court and just about every stat imaginable, making him a considerably better player in his sophomore season than his freshman year.
Well, effort has never been an area anyone’s criticized Vital in. He’s an intense player, and it’s no surprise that he’s been involved in a couple on-court scuffles—those don’t start with passive players, after all. Even after the game is out of reach, Vital dives on the floor for loose balls, drives hard to the rim, tries to set himself up for open threes and still plays as if the game can still be won.
While this is of course not as important to the final score as on-court play is, Vital’s attitude is exactly what you’d want to see: he’s determined, he cares, and yes, he’s a little headstrong. I couldn’t imagine a player more suited to lead UConn to a comeback year next season.
There’s plenty of criticism to go around for the poor results UConn has seen this season. Anytime a team is below .500, many things have gone wrong. Vital, though, has consistently made the problems better rather than making them worse. In a season this challenging for everyone, that deserves a lot of praise.