Injuries to three scholarship players has led Dan Hurley to push the remaining Huskies to new levels. Several players have taken on bigger roles for UConn, and others have simply been tasked with playing better in their existing roles.
Here’s how the healthy Huskies have performed since the roster crunch.
No one was asked to take on a bigger workload since Alterique Gilbert and Jalen Adams went down than Christian Vital was, and he’s been very effective, albeit with one blip.
Vital, at his best as a 3&D role player in previous seasons, has suddenly become the offensive focal point, a role that he hadn’t been in with the Huskies for longer than mere minutes at a time.
Until he struggled in the loss to Memphis, Vital had been playing the best ball of his career, the increased workload on offense taking nothing away from his typically great defensive effort. The recent losses have said nothing about Vital’s ability to lead a team; the Huskies are struggling because they’re currently lacking back court players of Vital’s caliber with Gilbert and Adams out.
Meanwhile, no other Husky has seen his reputation rise quite as quickly as Josh Carlton, who has been shutting down opponents on both ends of the floor.
The sophomore center had been quietly excellent all year, but his recent scoring influx caught a lot of attention. The next step of Carlton’s improvement as a player was seeing whether he could succeed with increased responsibilities.
Offensively, he’s done as well as anyone could have possibly hoped for; somewhat counterintuitively, his shooting percentages seem to get higher the more shots he attempts. Defensively, it’s been a bit more of a struggle, as the absence of Gilbert and Adams means he only has one overworked perimeter stopper in front of him. It’s clear that he’s still the best defensive player on the Huskies, though.
Tyler Polley came out of a big slump right before his teammates’ injuries, and has reverted to the production he showed at the beginning of the year, shooting .455 from three over the last five games. He could have always had a slightly bigger role in the offense, and now that he’s showing more aggression with the ball in his hands, the role seems to suit him. He’s had to play more defensive mismatches than Hurley wants, though he’s been up to the challenge, but he’s shown potential in more areas than he previously had.
If Polley learns how to control his risks, he’ll end up being one of the most effective players in the conference, but the adjustment has hit him hard and he’s fighting his way through it.
The beginning of Tarin Smith’s season was uncharacteristic for him, even when considering the improved competition he was suddenly playing against, so his recent return to form wasn’t a surprise. With the current roster construction, he’s been an excellent true point guard, just a limited one.
Smith can’t be a chucker from three, but he’s very steady with the ball in his hands, and hasn’t committed more than one turnover in a game in a month. He’s shown enough of a jumper recently to be considered a threat, and the offense has benefited from his presence. The early questions about his ability turned out to be unfounded, but he’s not a scorer in the same way Adams and Gilbert are.
Smith is a fine player who always helps the Huskies, but he alone can’t raise the level of the team the same way his injured teammates can.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the suddenly-open playing time, Sid Wilson has been inconsistent since becoming a big part of the lineup, which is understandable for a freshman. He had by far the best game of his UConn career in the loss to Memphis, and not just because his shots went in.
Wilson’s play on both ends has a lot of room for improvement, though, and before Sunday it seemed like there was more bad than good. Offensively he has two gears—spot up from three or drive directly to the basket—and has yet to show effectiveness in any other capacity. His play often stands out on the defensive end, as the springy forward has good shot-blocking ability, but he relies on that skill too much, and just as often is beaten off the dribble.
Wilson has a lot of potential and could eventually start for a healthy UConn team, but it’s likely he needs more experience and growth before consistently helping the team in this role.
Eric Cobb’s minutes were more affected by the season-ending injury to Kassoum Yakwe than by Adams’ or Gilbert’s, but the big man appears to be the same player he’s always been, even with consistent minutes. That’s a good thing.
Cobb is the perfect first big off the bench for a college team, a center who doesn’t represent too big a drop-off from the starter’s abilities, but also brings some unique skills of his own. Cobb, who may now be the only option Hurley has to put some versatility on the floor, has been playing alongside Carlton and can be used as a secondary big man or as a stretch-four with size, as his passing ability opens up opportunities as a hinge player in the post and his jumpers from outside have to be taken seriously. Cobb might not be getting a bigger role than he’s used to, but he’s just as effective a backup center as ever.
The lone true freshman on the UConn roster, Brendan Adams is still adjusting to the college game. Hurley’s guard-heavy lineups have provided him with more minutes than he was expected to play, and he’s been challenged so far.
As a member of the Huskies, Adams fits in; he’s clearly an intelligent player, he understands and follows team structures and schemes, and he has basketball ability. The problem is that his skills (other than passing, where he’s a solid ball-mover along the wing) just haven’t caught up yet, his shot especially—the form is fine and he makes good decisions, it just isn’t going in yet.
In healthy seasons, Adams is the type of player who wouldn’t play much as a freshman but makes noticeable improvements as a sophomore and upperclassman. This year, Adams is tasked with more than he was ready for. Don’t let that cloud your judgment of him; as soon as he gets the shot to start falling, he’s going to be a very good player.
I’ve long sang the praises of Isaiah Whaley, calling him an underrated player who deserved more playing time, but he’s essentially fallen out of the rotation wholesale, and it’s hard to see where he’d be effective with this team.
Whaley is springy and has shot-blocking ability, but so does Wilson. Whaley can rebound, but so can Carlton. It’s not that he’s an unskilled player, it’s that he seems to be blocked for playing time; UConn just already has players better at the things Whaley does well. That’s a nice luxury to have, of course, and if there’s an injury to a forward, Whaley would be first in line for playing time. I imagine he’d be quietly effective on the floor again.
Multiple injuries may have stolen the effectiveness from redshirt sophomore forward Mamadou Diarra, as he’s only played six minutes this season, all of them since Gilbert went down. When healthy, he plays hard on both ends, and has shown defensive aptitude and an ability to get a shot off. It’d be easier to evaluate him with more playing time.
Clearly, the current roster is not as good as it is when it’s at full strength. Replacing Adams with Vital might not be such a big deal, but then who steps into Vital’s role? College players are always developing on different timelines, which makes it hard for a freshman to just step in and replace a team leader. The Huskies are playing well in the absence of two important players, but it’s clear the team still misses them.