While there’s always hype around UConn men’s basketball’s incoming freshman class, this year feels a little bit different. The class of 2019, which includes Akok Akok, James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney and Richie Springs, marks head coach Dan Hurley’s first true recruiting class. Combine that with the Huskies’ move to the Big East next season, and it’s clear that this class might not just be the new kids on the block, but the start of a new era for UConn men’s basketball.
Fortunately for these young Huskies, senior Christian Vital knows a thing or two about being apart of a heralded recruiting class. While Vital and the “Top Five” class of 2016 didn’t necessarily pan out exactly as planned for UConn, he sees enough similarities between these freshmen and his recruiting class four years ago to pass along some of his wisdom.
“They are extremely talented, they were kind of remind me of the group I came in when there was five of us and four of those guys were in the top 100 on ESPN,” Vital said. “Those guys are really talented, just understand the concepts. Don’t try to rush it and just take it a day at a time because it’s going to be a long year.”
Hype for this has built up since the very beginning of 2019, when Akok enrolled for spring semester to get a head start on acclimating to the team and the college game. Gaffney and Bouknight have the potential to be the Huskies’ next great backcourt, and Springs was a late addition to the class, but seems loaded with potential. And while latter slid under the radar for a lot of fans, Hurley is excited about his potential while in Storrs.
“He’s just such a quality addition. Probably of the guys, him and RJ [Cole] probably got the least amount of fanfare. Those guys will be integral parts to hopefully a championship,” Hurley said of Springs.
All in all, Hurley knows that his first full recruiting class is full of talent. But with this group adjusting to so many things in and out of basketball as all freshman must do, he might not reap the benefits right away.
“I’m the perfect coach for these scenarios,” Hurley said. “I’ve been through year twos I’ve been through year ones. I know how to bring pressure along, I know how to, you know how to give them just enough ... I don’t get spooked by a bad practice or the freshmen not knowing where to be in ball screen defense or not know how to guard flare screen. I know how they’re going to come in here.”
That isn’t a problem for Hurley, though. Throughout his other stops, his patience has paid off, perhaps most obviously with EC Matthews while at Rhode Island. By the time Matthews finished his career at URI, he was widely regarded as one of the top players in the Northeast and scored more than 2,000 career points. But it didn’t come to Matthews right away, and Hurley’s patience helped not only Matthews’ development, but the team’s as well. Matthews didn’t start until the ninth game of his career, and it paid off for everyone in the end.
“It’s just it’s the learning curve ... How much can they absorb and learn to not make tons of mistakes? They can all make plays, they’re all super athletic. But a lot of winning comes down to who makes the least amount of mistakes,” Hurley said. “That’s basically where we got to get them.”
Maybe Akok has a head start due to enrolling early. Maybe Bouknight, Gaffney or Springs put it together and crack the starting lineup first. Either way, Hurley won’t rush these freshmen and put them too far out of their comfort zone early on. With strong leadership from Vital, Alterique Gilbert and Josh Carlton, Hurley and his first freshman class have enough talent to make a leap in year two.
“This is Al and Christian’s team. And Josh. We need those three guys to play on an all conference level,” Hurley said. “We need the freshmen to be as good as advertised when the ball goes up. But those older guys got to take pressure off them because the freshmen aren’t just going to come in and bail us out.”