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UConn men’s basketball positional preview: Big men

Josh Carlton headlines the Huskies’ thin group in the paint, while Akok Akok and Isaiah Whaley look to break (and re-break) onto the scene.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Josh Carlton gained 25 pounds this offseason. Isaiah Whaley gained 20 pounds. Akok Akok now looks like he could bench press a semi. Even freshman Richie Springs got in on the fun, up to 220 from 200 in his senior year.

Strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi has had his guys moving pounds and pounds of iron to bulk up, and it’s showed. The Huskies’ frontcount will be bigger, stronger and all-around beefier than last year. In fact, the last time UConn started three players 6-foot-9 or above to open the season — Josh Carlton (6-foot-11), Akok Akok (6-foot-9) and Tyler Polley (6-foot-9) are expected to start in 2019, and opened the exhibition game — was 2012, when Andre Drummond, Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith led the front line.

We’re considering Polley a wing for the purpose of our previews (he sure as hell doesn’t play with his back to the basket), but Josh Carlton, Akok Akok and Isaiah Whaley have their own unique range of skills that can help UConn succeed.

Josh Carlton will be the workhorse down low, and Akok Akok, expected to start next to him, will fill in his weaknesses. Carlton will pull down plenty of rebounds and continue to improve in the post, while Akok Akok can drive to the rim, block shots, and stretch the floor.

What UConn’s frontcourt will lack, however, is significant depth. Freshman forward Richie Springs will take an academic redshirt this year, and Mamadou Diarra retired this offseason after a career plagued by injuries. Wings Polley and Sidney Wilson will almost certainly spend at least part of their minutes at the power forward position, while Isaiah Whaley, primed for a breakout season after disappearing for most of 2018-19, will be the de facto backup at the power forward and center positions.

Josh Carlton is a bully on the court. A lot of players with the junior’s size and skillset get that designation, but Carlton’s two years with the Huskies have given us evidence that he fits that bill as much as anyone in the country: Carlton bossed undersized centers on outmatched teams.

Out of his nine 15-point games, all but one of them came against a team where the guy guarding him was 6-foot-9 or under. It’s not the most advanced statistic in the world, but it gives you a notion of Carlton’s game, one that he started to break late in the 2018-19 season. He got 11 rebounds over Tacko Fall against UCF, then had back-to-back double-doubles against ECU and Temple in February.

“The more I got the ball, the more confident I’d get,” Carlton told the Courant. “I could see it in the way [opponents] scouted for me, drawing more attention, double teams.”

Now an elder statesman of sorts on this UConn team, Carlton should have everything he needs to become a key cog for the Huskies this year.

Carlton will rule the paint against mid-majors with his larger frame, and his post moves will give him a shot against UConn’s most talented opponents. His limitations are well known: his vertical leap isn’t the best, he certainly isn’t a modern, floor-stretching big man, and he’s been known to pick up a foul or two. But he has a lead guard whose strength is distribution and is very adept at running the pick-and-roll (Alterique Gilbert), plenty of guard depth to space the floor, and a wing who can shoot (Polley), so he should have plenty of room to operate down low.

Carlton won’t need to lead the team, but if he can rebound and defend well in the post, extending his upward trajectory from last year, it’ll go a long way.

If Carlton is the old-school, post-up center, Akok Akok is the new generation. The freshman is fast and has no problem handling the ball and slashing to the rim. He’s every bit as comfortable letting it fly from three as Tyler Polley, and his 7-foot-2 wingspan will give UConn a shot-blocking presence they haven’t had since Amida Brimah graduated. He’s a modern big man, and Dan Hurley should use him in all the ways that a modern big should be used.

It starts with him beyond the three-point line, where Polley started last year. With what he’s shown so far, it seems like his floor is a three-and-D guy, moving from the post out to the 3-point line to catch a kickout pass when one of UConn’s athletic guards drives to the rim. He might not yet be the greatest screener, so look for him cutting to the rim when Carlton and one of the guards run the pick-and-roll. Through the rest of the season, keep an eye on his offensive development, because the faster other parts of his offensive game develop, the more facets UConn’s offense will have.

Defensively, Akok’s shot-blocking is well known, and it’ll allow Hurley to run his pressure cooker defense that the second-year coach is well-known for. With Akok’s threat at the rim, it’ll open up Gilbert, Vital and company to relentlessly hound their counterparts on the other side.

To further help his game defensively, Akok says that he’s “trying to put on an extra couple of pounds and help my game defensively, banging down low with big guys.”

We don’t have a great idea how Dan Hurley will use Isaiah Whaley this year, because we barely saw him at all last year. How he did perform in his limited time on the court during his first two seasons created some mystique around the then-sophomore. He has a solid .578 career true shooting percentage (A field goal percentage metric that weights 3-pointers, 2-pointers and free throws), but his defense metrics are where the real intrigue lies: 7.3 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.1 steals per 40 minutes.

When the former coach plays a guy 14 minutes per game, he performs like that, then he drops off the face of the earth under the new coach, fans are left with a lot of questions.

“I probably didn’t give Isaiah as much of a chance as I should have,” Hurley admitted this summer. “Eric [Cobb], to me, with his early season play earned that role behind Josh. There were probably more opportunities that Isaiah should have gotten.”

Whaley has the potential to be a defensive machine at the backup center/power forward position, and if you listen to Hurley, he’s added even more to his game in the offseason:

“I feel way more confident at guarding in the post [and] rebounding,” Whaley said, and Hurley backed that up.

“I think he’s got enough athleticism and basketball ability that he can be a back-up forward, backup center, and give us quality minutes, because he’s kind of an intangibles guy,” Hurley said.

Whaley has a good chance to be the “glue guy” for the second unit that currently includes two freshmen in Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight (one that’s unlikely to debut until well into the season) and two unproven sophomores in Sidney Wilson and Brendan Adams. Against bigger teams, he could also work his way into the starting lineup next to Carlton.

Stepping into a larger role this season isn’t a reach for Whaley, and he’s arguably the most intriguing big man on the team.