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UConn men’s basketball positional preview: Guards

The Huskies boast a deep backcourt unit in 2019-20.

Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert lead the Husky backcourt
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The UConn men’s basketball team only needs to look up at the banners in their practice facility to know the importance of having a good backcourt. Boat and ‘Bazz. Kemba and Lamb. Price and Dyson. Gordon and Brown. Khalid and Rip. There are still-shots of some of those legends hanging in the Werth Center, and the impact they’ve had on the program is obvious.

Second-year head coach Dan Hurley told Blue Ribbon he’s been known to address those still shots at practices. Take a second and imagine Hurlery exclaiming in the heat of a practice “do you believe this, Rip?!” That’s a unique form of motivation for UConn’s cadre of guards in 2019-20. It’s been a busy offseason, but now its time to find out who’s next to join those esteemed ranks.

This year’s backcourt rotation has the potential to be the deepest since its 2011 title run. Offensively, Hurley wants to push the tempo, and that starts with rebounding and guard play. While the former has been a boogeyman for UConn the past decade, the latter is paced by senior Christian Vital and redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert, both of which landed on the preseason second-team All-AAC team and are comfortable pushing the ball on the break and initiating the offense.

Beyond them, all of UConn’s guard rotation can score at multiple levels. It’s a unit that is expected to go four or five deep all season, with enough shooting, length, and play-making to shoulder the offensive burden.

Reading the exhibition tea leaves, it looks like Akok Akok, Tyler Polley, and Josh Carlton will be starting alongside Vital and Gilbert. That’s a 6-foot-7 wing and two 6-foot-11 bigs juxtaposing two undersized guards, and it will be interesting to see how Hurley utilizes that discrepancy. UConn also has the backcourt depth and personnel to trot out a small ball lineup.

Defensively, Hurley likes his guards to run opposing guards off the 3-point line and force contested mid-range jumpers. Improving on rotations will be key too for a unit last year that often left many a man open on switches.

Here’s how UConn’s backcourt will look this coming season.

Christian Vital

Vital will look to finish a turbulent Husky career on a high note. His first season under Hurley was a roller-coaster that saw a 21-point outburst against Wichita State face off with getting benched vs. SMU later in the year. But through those in-game highs and lows, there’s a marked consistency to him; he averaged 14 points and five rebounds per game in the last two seasons while quietly improving his efficiency, shooting 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. He’s a plus rebounder and pesky on-ball defender with intangibles that are sorely needed as the team’s only senior.

For a team that could once again struggle on the boards and wants to further instill Hurley’s man-to-man pressure scheme, consistent impact in those two areas is necessary even when his shot isn’t falling.

Vital is a Queens, New York guard through-and-through who plays with his heart on his sleeve and a chip on his shoulder. When those emotions are properly channeled, they raise the level of the entire team. When they’re left to run amok, nothing details a teams in-game momentum faster. It looks like Hurley and him —two people cut from the same cloth, temperamentally— figured each other out as last season went on, and that bodes well for Vital’s victory lap this year.

If the Huskies don’t make any tournament this year, he’d be the first UConn player in 32 years to fail and reach either the NCAA or NIT Tournament during a four-year UConn career. Given his competitive nature, you can bet the bank he’s going to leave it all out there this season to avoid that designation.

Alterique Gilbert

It’s frustrating that the eight games Gilbert missed last year was considered a “healthy” season. Now though, UConn’s floor general is fresh off a full summer of workouts both on-court and in the weight room for the first time ever at Storrs. The result is hopefully a more consistent version of the glimpses Gilbert flashed last year as a playmaker and point guard.

When healthy, he is the engine that makes the team go. His role as facilitator (team-leading 3.6 assists per game last year) lets Vital play off the ball and hunt for his shot. He’s also shown he can score in bunches, having led the team in scoring five times last year.

He doesn’t post eye-popping shooting numbers, but the hope is a clean bill of health this summer gets his shooting mechanics into rhythm. If he just becomes slightly more of a shooting threat, defenders won’t be able to sag off him, and driving lanes will open up.

A full summer injury-free should only strengthen his shoulder, which is crucial considering the amount of screens he gets run through on defense. Gilbert is a pest in the Ryan Boatright mold on that end, where he gets up and into a players chest. Although him and Vital are undersized, little guys hold an edge defensively when they can get as close as possible and can negate the height advantage. This water bug defense was an underrated factor in the 2014 team’s title run led by Bazz and Boat. If Vital and Gilbert can recreate some of that magic on the defensive end, there’s a good chance UConn is back in the Big Dance.

Brendan Adams

Adams holds the distinction of being Hurley’s first UConn recruit, and it’s fitting that he brings the stability Hurley craved in year one. The freshman was a steady presence off the bench last year, appearing in all 31 games and averaging 12 minutes per game. He’s exactly what a team needs as a combo guard; a capable ball-handler with the size to be an excellent on-ball defender. He often struggled with his shot early on, but the types of his misses and reports from teammates indicate he’s a better shooter than advertised last year.

If his handle keeps improving from year one to year two, it’s not hard to envision three-guard sets where Adams, Vital, and Gilbert run hand-offs; a play that was a staple in Hurley’s offense last year. Listed at 6-foot-4, he’s a nice complement to his undersized backcourt mates. It’s also worth noting Adams’ is older brother is Jaylen, a former star at St. Bonaventure who’s now in his second year with the Atlanta Hawks. Jaylen didn’t necessarily light the world on fire as a freshman with the Bonnies, and took some time to grow into the game. That’s not to say Brandon will lead the conference in scoring, but it does give confidence that he’s a steady piece for the future.

Jalen Gaffney

Gaffney will be one of the two freshman guards heavily leaned on this year. The 6-foot-3 guard has been billed as a do-everything player with no real flaws to his game. He has experience playing both on and off the ball, a skill set that will be critical to filling out the backcourt. An ankle injury has limited his preseason, but was recently cleared for the opener. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him be the first guard off the bench, subbing for either Vital or Gilbert as the play dictates.

The big thing for Gaffney will be reps in the college game, as the transition from prep to college is daunting for even the most talented kid. But given the way the way his old coaches talk about him, it will be hard to keep Gaffney off the floor much this year. If he’s not playing like a freshman come February, UConn is in good shape.

James Bouknight

Bouknight — the 10th ranked shooting guard in 2019 — has all the talent in the world, it’s his motor and defense that just need to be unlocked, according to Hurley. His athleticism is off the charts, and he’s got a nice shooting touch to go with it, too.

However, there will be some delay to his Husky debut, considering his recent legal transgressions. It remains to be seen when Bouknight will see the court, but there’s no doubt him and Gaffney form the backcourt of the future. Whenever he does get on the court, look for Bouknight to be a source of instant offense and play-making from the jump.

R.J. Cole

If Alterique Gilbert leaves after this year, UConn has a point guard understudy waiting in the wings in Cole. The junior transfer from Howard will sit out this year, but was one of the more sought after transfers on the market this past spring. He’ll have two seasons of eligibility in Husky blue, and last year was named AP Honorable Mention All-American and MEAC Player of the Year.

At Howard, Cole was asked to do it all; score, dish, set up the offense, handle the ball. Stepping into a more talented roster next year in Storrs, Cole should have defenses sagging off him more, and teammates around him that can create their own shot. Going from the MEAC to the Big East after sitting a year will certainly be tough, but Cole will have an entire year under Hurley’s tutelage to get up to speed. Plus he’s already familiar with the Hurley system, having played for Bob Hurley at St. Anthony's in high school.

Temi Aiyegbusi

Walk-ons need love too; they don’t get nearly enough credit for their dedication. Aiyegbusi is entering his fourth year with the program after starting as a practice player his freshman year. He appeared in 18 games last year, and here’s hoping he gets burn every game in 2019-20.