After a secret scrimmage against Harvard last week, the UConn men’s basketball team took on Saint Michael’s College in their one and only public exhibition contest before the season opener next Friday against Sacred Heart. The Huskies used a strong second half to cruise by the Purple Knights, winning 103-64 at the XL Center in Hartford.
While a lopsided win against a poor Division II opponent can’t tell us much (who remembers getting hyped for Sam Cassell Jr. after the preseason back in 2014-15), there are still some important takeaways from Wednesday night’s win.
Huskies pull away in second half
Daniel Connolly: After the first 20 minutes of play, the best thing you could say about the team’s performance was “At least they aren’t losing!” UConn played a sloppy, disjointed first half that brought back bad memories of recent struggles. The Huskies were winning because of the vast gap in talent, not because they played better.
Luckily, that changed in the second half. The Huskies played more cohesively and dominated the game more over time. For comparison, UConn scored 63 points in the second half compared to just 40 in the first. It shot 66.7 percent compared to just 35 percent. The Huskies didn’t lead by more than 13 in the first frame. At one point in the second half, they lead by 43.
In the second half, the Huskies dominated the way they should when playing a Division II opponent. Add in the team’s 86-80 win over Harvard in a secret scrimmage and odds are UConn’s second half performance is a better barometer than the first half in terms of what we’ll see once the regular season rolls around.
DC: Last season, Josh Carlton feasted off undersized teams that lacked a true center to guard him. But against a St. Michael’s team whose tallest player was just 6-foot-7, Carlton could only scrape together six points and six rebounds — none of which came on the offensive end — in 20 minutes of play.
Considering how well he played down the stretch last season and the expectations on him for this year, Carlton should’ve destroyed the Purple Knights in the post, on the glass and defensively. Instead, Carlton was invisible for most of the night. He was getting double teamed quite a bit, and did a good job of getting the ball out when that happened.
Obviously it’s a small sample size in a game that doesn’t mean anything. But UConn is relying on the junior center to step up big this year if it has any chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament again.
Isaiah “Poppers” Whaley
Dan Madigan: Isaiah Whaley stepped onto the court and looked like a new player. The junior nicknamed Pork Chop added some muscle to his formerly wiry frame and showed off a greatly improved offensive element. Although it was against an inferior opponent, Whaley scored on a handful of post moves and even stepped out and drilled a few midrange jumpers, earning a new nickname - “Poppers” - from his teammates.
Whaley will never be asked to carry the scoring load on this offense, but if he can score even a little bit, he’ll see the court much more than last year. He still showed his usual energy on the boards and on defense, and could be a real asset off the bench if he can continue to put it all together.
The senior guards can score
Megan Gauer: Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital combined for 36 points in the exhibition contest, previewing what is likely to be a dominate offensive performance by the upperclassmen guards all season long. Gilbert was efficient from the floor, finishing 8-15 and shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc for a total of 21 points.
Vital led the team in rebounds, tallying eight in 29 minutes on the court. While he did have an advantage in minutes to all of the Huskies’ frontcourt players, the 6-foot-2 guard is not the best candidate to lead UConn on the glass this season. Regardless, Vital’s final stat line at 15 points, 8 boards and 6 assists is an impressive start for the season. Additionally, Vital finished with six steals, a testament to his continued impressive play on the defensive end for the Huskies.
Luke Swanson: Akok Akok, heralded as a rim protector also able to stretch the floor, fulfilled one of those two billings on Wednesday night. The freshman sensation started the game, going 3-for-7 off the bench, missing both 3-pointers he took, but pulled down five rebounds and stuffed Purple Knights four times at the rim, a stat that would have even more impressive if Whaley didn’t one-up him from the bench.
Sophomore Brendan Adams impressed the most out of any underclassman, with 14 points and four rebounds in 22 minutes of action. With Bouknight’s unannounced suspension, Adams was the first guard off the bench on Wednesday. Adams has active hands on defense, with four steals and additional deflections, while driving to the rim and successfully drawing fouls — his five were the second-most of any Husky on the night, and he made all five.