Year two of the Dan Hurley era gets underway Friday as the Huskies take on Sacred Heart at Gampel Pavilion. As UConn heads into its final season in the American Athletic Conference, here are The UConn Blog’s staff predictions.
Daniel Connolly: Christian Vital. Josh Carlton seems like the easy answer but I’m not totally sold on him taking a big leap this year. Vital never takes a play off so I’d imagine he’ll grab plenty of rebounds on pure will alone.
Aman Kidwai: Josh Carlton edged out Christian Vital for this honor last year, and I think he’ll hold on to it for another year. Carlton will have some more help down low, but will still be the main rebounder in the group, so I expect him to improve on his 6.2 boards per game from last season.
Dan Madigan: Vital is an A+ dark horse choice here, but this Carlton’s category to lose. There are too many games on the schedule this year where he will be the tallest and most skilled big man on floor.
tcf15: Josh Carlton. Last year, he became the first center since Andre Drummond to lead the team in rebounding with 6.2 per game. The AAC’s reigning co-Most Improved Player will take another step forward this year and average 7-8 rebounds per game.
Patrick Martin: Going with Christian Vital. Carlton’s the incumbent champ, but his added weight might bring his numbers down a bit. I see Vital leading a gang-rebounding effort from UConn’s guards.
Connolly: Christian Vital. He’s clearly the leader of this team and will be determined to make the postseason. While there’s a lot of scoring options in UConn’s starting five, I think the Huskies will get the ball in the hands of the senior when they really need a basket.
Aman: Christian Vital. It’s his senior year and he was just under Jalen Adams last season for the team lead. A lot of shots open up with Adams gone and it’ll be him and Alterique Gilbert leading the charge. Vital will get be the volume shooter and scorer he’s always wanted to be.
Patrick: Christian Vital, but it won’t be by much. A fully healthy Gilbert, and a beefed up Carlton will balance out the scoring load. The freshmen will be good, but not leading scorer-good. Dark horse? Tyler Polley.
tcf15: Christian Vital. Vital was a much more efficient player in year one under Dan Hurley - his .612 true shooting percentage (up from .548 the previous year) was the highest for a UConn guard since Tony Robertson in 2001-02. You’ll probably see Vital and Alterique Gilbert alternate as the leading scorers from game to game, but Vital will ultimately come out on top this year.
Madigan: I think we’re sleeping on how good a healthy Alterique Gilbert is. With an improved Carlton and Tyler Polley and the addition of Akok Akok, this offense should be more balanced than last year. That should allow Gilbert, who will have the ball in his hands frequently, to beat his man off the dribble for easy buckets. He’s also a better 3-point shooter (33.6 percent) than people give him credit for, and that should improve even more this year
Upset Watch (team that could upset UConn)
Connolly: Buffalo. Coming off the Florida game and opening the Charleston Classic against a quality mid-major could be tough. Other than that, the non-conference schedule is pretty much either cupcake or quality opponent. There’s not a lot of in-between.
Aman: Home against USF. They’re going to be a pain in UConn’s butt this year. The one on the road will be a legitimate challenge, and they’ll need to be on top of their game in the Bulls’ return visit to Connecticut late in the season.
Patrick: Tulsa. They always seem to give UConn headaches, and the four-out, one-in offense Frank Haith utilizes could give our guards and wings trouble. Who guards 6-foot-8 Martins Igbanu? He’s a matchup nightmare.
tcf15: SMU on the road. Just something about UConn playing at Moody Coliseum doesn’t always work out.
Madigan: It’s always the road game at Tulsa and I can’t be convinced otherwise.
Best Non-Con Win
Connolly: Florida. A UConn team without super-high expectations playing a highly-ranked Florida team at Gampel Pavilion with a hungry senior guard leading the team? I like our chances.
Aman: Indiana. They always make some magic happen at MSG.
Patrick: Xavier. I see the future Big East opponents on a collision course in Charleston. No. 19 Xavier has a formidable inside-out duo of Quentin Goodin and Connecticut native Tyrique Jones, but UConn matches up well with the Muskies. It would be the first statement non-conference win somewhere other than Madison Square Garden in what feels like forever. Consider this an opening salvo to Banners on the Parkway.
tcf15: Xavier in the Charleston Classic.
Madigan: Indiana at The Garden. MSG will be loud as the Huskies play their first game there since announcing their return to the Big East. It’s a tough game, but UConn’s home court advantage might be enough to give them the edge.
Connolly: Fifth, but man I hope I’m wrong. It would be so, so incredible for UConn to win the regular season and go out with its head high, but its middle finger higher. What a great parting gift that would be.
Aman: I’ll go fourth. Cinci, Memphis, Houston, USF, Wichita State are expected to be in the mix but I think UConn can finish ahead of some of them.
Patrick: Three Man Weave and Blue Ribbon – two trusted sites for college basketball nerds — have UConn at seventh and fifth, respectively. I respectfully disagree, and think the Huskies can crack the top four. The team learned to play without Jalen Adams last year, and there’s more depth in tow now to sneak past the middle-tier triumvirate of Wichita State, South Florida, and Temple.
tcf15: Third place behind Memphis and Houston
Madigan: Fourth place. I’m just not sure this team is better than Cincinnati, Houston or Memphis. I wouldn’t be surprised if USF jumped past the Huskies either and bumped them to fifth.
Connolly: Houston. I think Memphis a candidate to fall flat on their face with so many freshmen. So I’ll go with Houston. I think in the post-UConn AAC, there’s a strong argument that Kelvin Sampson is the best coach in the conference and really built a strong, sustaining program in H-Town.
Aman: Houston. Feels like they’re returning the most proven talent and they have coaching continuity going for them over anyone else.
Patrick: Memphis. It seems like the hype train has gone the other way now, where the trendy thing to do is to discount the absolutely stacked roster down on Beale St. Penny isn’t as bad a coach as people say, and James Wiseman looks legit.
Madigan: Cincinnati. Jarron Cumberland is one of the best guards in the country and Mick Cronin isn’t around to mess things up.
Connolly: As much as I want to see UConn get to one (1) NCAA Tournament in my college career, I’m having trouble talking myself into it. Maybe it’s just because I’ve seen so much terrible men’s basketball in my time here and every year prior I’ve convinced myself that I’ll finally see a good team that it turned me cynical.
Ultimately, I think they’ll make the NIT at worst but will at least be on the bubble going into the conference tournament needed a couple wins to really solidify their place in the NCAA Tournament. And at that point, it’s hard to count UConn out of a tournament.
Aman: Bubble team that sneaks in and loses in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Patrick: It will be tough to get past Cincinnati or Memphis in the AAC Tournament. But 21 wins and scalps over Xavier, Buffalo, and Indiana should put UConn in the conversation for the first four in. A play-in game at Dayton in March would have the Huskies dancing for the first time in four years.
tcf15: Lose in second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Madigan: I hope i’m wrong, but I think this is a bubble team at best and one that ends up on the outside looking in for this year’s NCAA tournament. After that, the focus shifts to next year’s Big East return.
Favorite American Athletic Conference Memory
Connolly: Jalen Adams’ buzzer-beater and there’s not even a close second. The swing of emotions in such as short period of time was crazy. Being crushed when Cincinnati hit the shot, to thinking Adams’ ensuing shot actually looked pretty good, to losing my mind.
Once I collected myself, I called my mom — who was watching delayed on her phone — and she was so confused as to why I was so excited. “HE MADE IT, JALEN HIT THE SHOT DID YOU NOT SEE IT???” Apparently my call showed up on her phone right when Jalen let go of it and she assumed UConn lost. So I kinda ruined that moment for her. Sorry mom.
Aman: The 2016 AAC Tournament: the Jalen Adams 70-footer, comfortable wins the rest of the way to claim the crown, and auto-bidding into the NCAA Tournament. What a feeling. With the vaunted 2016 recruiting class coming in, it felt like the Kevin Ollie era was coming into its own and that the basketball program had everything in place to succeed long-term. Unfortunately, they opened the next season by losing to Wagner and Northeastern, and it was all downhill from there.
Patrick: Currently dwelling in Cincinnati, there’s no answer here other than Adams’ 70-footer. And to make it even sweeter, I was teaching a college course on public speaking at Cincinnati and opened class the next day with that clip. For some reason, my student evaluations that semester weren’t great.
tcf15: When they taped a microphone to Kevin Ollie’s face.
Madigan: Ryan Boatright’s buzzer beater against Cincinnati in the AAC quarterfinals in Hartford was maybe my personal favorite. The XL Center was maybe the loudest I’ve ever heard it and Mick Cronin was very mad. It was awesome.