As we all remember, the UConn men’s basketball team struggled a great deal this season. The Huskies limped to a 14-18 record in their worst finish in the last thirty years. Not ideal.
There’s reason to be hopeful for the future, though. Everyone will be a year older next season, and new head coach Dan Hurley has talent returning. While everyone knows Jalen Adams and Christian Vital, this year’s freshmen didn’t get nearly the playing time as the lineup’s mainstays—no one was on the floor for even 500 minutes this season.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t important, of course. With four (five, if you count a redshirt, which we do) freshmen on the roster this year, they all were able to get enough looks to get a solid evaluation of the players they are now, and who they might be in the future.
Let’s take a look at each one, and discuss what strengths they bring to the team, where they need to improve, and what type of impact they have.
Josh Carlton was UConn’s most impressive freshman for most of the season, as he was tasked with responsibilities far above what would reasonably be expected from a newcomer. He was up for the task and often succeeded in difficult roles, but there was naturally a learning curve.
Carlton emerged as the Huskies’ top interior defender, a natural offensive rebounder, and a solid scorer in the post. He could benefit from better footwork, improving his lateral quickness to make him an even better defensive player, and better decision-making with the ball in his hands.
While Carlton is far from a finished product, the skills he already has suggests he doesn’t need a restructuring of the way he plays, just some refinement. Carlton was a huge plus to the Huskies this past season, leaving many wondering why he wasn’t getting more playing time, but he should be in line for big minutes next year if he stays.
Isaiah Whaley is a very different player than his complement and natural frontcourt partner Carlton, but their impacts were pretty similar. Whaley was also a strong defender from the first game of the year, but in a different role. While Carlton guarded the big men, Whaley was a roaming player, guarding taller perimeter players and big men alike, and excelling in help defense.
Whaley offered a more versatile offensive game than Carlton too, having more range and touch than his counterpart. I’d like to see him improve his shooting range to the point where his jumper can become a legitimate asset rather than a tool he only occasionally uses, and bulking up in the weight room this summer could help his defensive versatility. Whaley is going to continue to be a nice option for the UConn frontcourt as the team strives to reach the NCAA Tournament again. His role shouldn’t change too significantly next year.
Tyler Polley had perhaps the slowest start of any UConn player this season, but he followed it up with a genuinely strong ending to the season, finishing with a .417 three-point percentage and becoming the secondary outside shooting option that the Huskies needed all year. His defense needs a lot of work, but his instincts indicate he could improve here; he’s focused and locked in, he did make plays at times, and his frame means he could become a disruptor with more refinement.
He’ll need to work on his overall scoring (Polley shot only .231 from inside the arc this season), but UConn could use a three-point specialist too, and as long as Polley develops an adequate secondary offensive skill, he’ll be very useful to the team next year. A good next step for him would be to become a dependable scoring threat off the bench.
Mamadou Diarra might be the toughest player to evaluate on the entire UConn roster, as his effort and intensity didn’t always match his production on the court. He clearly got more comfortable and improved over the course of the season, but how much better he got is another question entirely.
Has his defense become good enough to be a legitimate asset, or is it just good enough for a bench player? Is his true scoring ability closer to the .411 field goal percentage he put up in non-conference play or the .714 mark he had in-conference? Is he a limited player or is he capable of developing secondary skills without having his primary skills atrophy? These are all questions that will need to be answered in the next season, but until we see the answers lean closer to the more optimistic options, Diarra is perfectly fine as a bruiser off the bench.
Alterique Gilbert hasn’t had much time to play during either his true or redshirt freshman seasons, but what we’ve seen so far has been mixed. Obviously, there’s more of a curve to a player with an injury history so extensive, and he deserves credit for battling through a lot of adversity, but the play didn’t look great in his six games this season.
His jump shot is still in need of major reworking, and he didn’t display the inside scoring ability we had hoped, hitting just .368 from inside the arc. Gilbert’s defensive play is strong, and a backcourt pairing of him and Christian Vital, despite being undersized, could shut down opponents. He’ll need to work on his scoring, and further development of his passing ability could result in a far more dynamic offense next season, but it’s just hard to know what to expect out of Gilbert given his injury situation. If he’s at full strength playing alongside Jalen Adams and Vital, it could be a pretty good scene.