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UConn men’s basketball season preview: The X-factor

Versatility could be the key to get the Huskies back to the NCAA tournament.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

In case we need to revisit an unfortunate fact, the Huskies haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament in three seasons. There are hundreds of reasons that this happened, none of which is in particular need of relitigation, but the general consensus is that the playable roster often wasn’t up to the task.

That’s going to change this season, as the Huskies aren’t built to lose games anymore. As long as the injury bug doesn’t bite too often, UConn is primed to at least return to the tournament and possibly upset a team or two once they’ve gotten there.

Another year of experience for talented young players is helpful, as is the most game-ready class of freshman the Huskies have had since Jim Calhoun’s departure. The biggest change, however, is the addition of something every successful team needs, but the Huskies are just regaining this year: versatility.

In previous years, UConn struggled with roster construction. If a big man was in foul trouble, the Huskies might not have had anyone worthy of replacing him. If there was an injury, nobody was ready to fill a role. Even just in the cycle of regular rotations, the Huskies weren’t able to utilize lineups that were optimized to their opponent.

That was then; things are different now. While the combo guard punch of Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert does resemble the last few years of Storrs basketball, the situation behind and around them doesn’t. The backup guards of the past few years were either unready to contribute or blandly competent graduate transfers, but Brendan Adams is a heady player whose shot keeps improving, and James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney are dynamic, athletic freshmen who, thanks to the lack of pressure, will have all season to figure out how to contribute at this level.

Dan Hurley also has options in the starting lineup. Does he start Tyler Polley at the three for a big lineup with Akok Akok and Josh Carlton? Does Adams or one of the freshman guards step up in a big way, allowing for a three-guard lineup? Does one of the returning backups—like Isaiah Whaley or Sid Wilson—improve enough to justify taking minutes from someone else?

These questions will be figured out during the season, which should be a point of optimism for Hurley and his coaching staff. The Huskies didn’t show much in-season improvement in recent years, but being able to project growth—yes, actual growth!—during the 2019-20 season means they won’t be stuck using the same lineups all year.

The biggest boon for the team may be Akok, whose skillset is versatile enough on its own to allow a whole bunch of different sets. As a freshman, it’s likely he’ll still need some refinement, but a switchable player capable of scoring on all three levels is exactly the type of player teams need to succeed in today’s game. If he exceeds his projections his first year in Storrs, he’ll be the first player of this type that UConn has had since DeAndre Daniels, who broke out as a star during the 2014 title run.

This isn’t to say the season rests in Akok’s hands; simply adding another good player to the roster will be an improvement over last season. The four upperclassman starters are going to have to maintain their production too, so it’s not as if only one thing will make or break the Huskies. But the increased versatility will take so much pressure off any one player to perform at his best, which means the Huskies have a whole lot more wiggle room this year. And when they’re playing another classic AAC matchup where the other team’s goal is just to slow down the game as much as possible, the wiggle room could be the difference between 6-12 and 12-6.