As injuries keep adding up, the Huskies prepare for their season finale on the road against East Carolina to end both team’s regular season schedule.
UConn (14-16, 5-12 American) took another hit in Thursday’s loss to Temple when Alterique Gilbert went down with a concussion and eye injury. Along with an injury that has kept leading scorer Jalen Adams out since early February and an early season-ending injury to backup center Kassoum Yakwe, Gilbert’s injury decimates a team desperately in need of depth.
A win would break a tie in UConn’s favor for the nine seed in the American Athletic Conference tournament, giving the Huskies a better chance at advancing to the second round despite battling through major injuries through the entirety of conference play.
They’ll have a good chance to get a victory even with a small roster against East Carolina (10-19, 3-14 AAC), which has won only one game since the start of February. The Pirates have struggled all year, having yet to make much progress in Joe Dooley’s first season back in Greenville. Dooley, the last coach to lead ECU to back-to-back winning seasons, has improved the team in some respects, but an overall program turnaround was always going to take more than one year.
The Pirates have several deficiencies, but one strength of the team is the aggressive play most fans would reasonably expect them to avoid. With a relative talent disparity compared to the rest of the conference, ECU applies pressure in unexpected ways, giving teams tough games—such as the Pirates’ January victory over Cincinnati. While it’s not a risk-averse strategy, it often results in takeaways and free throws, two things ECU needs in order to win games.
That’s largely because the team struggles to shoot from the floor, posting one of the worst three-point percentages in the nation, and pairing it with a well-below-average two-point conversion rate nearly eliminates the Pirates’ chances of scoring at an effective pace. The defense, reliant on its double-teams and traps, is vulnerable from three if the right pass is made. Since ECU rarely takes 3-pointers—a valid strategy, as the team struggles to score from that area—simply taking enough threes is often all it takes to outscore the Pirates.
The absence of both Gilbert and Adams limits the Huskies’ offense quite a bit, but Dan Hurley still has three-point shooters in Christian Vital (7-11 from beyond the arc in Thursday’s loss) and Tyler Polley (37.8 percent from three on the year). The only healthy true ballhandler on the team is Tarin Smith, whose dependable presence and high basketball IQ ensures he can spread the ball around, but his outside jumper isn’t reliable, meaning the Huskies will likely have to rely on either Sidney Wilson or Brendan Adams, both of whom have been inconsistent from deep.
With one last tune-up game before the AAC Tournament, the Huskies may have to adjust to a rotation that once again is much shorter than anyone would like. Getting either Gilbert or Adams back for the first round on Thursday would be a big plus, but as the status of both is up in the air, the team will have to get used to this lineup very quickly.
What to watch for
When UConn has the ball: Will the Huskies have to depend solely on Vital for outside offense again, or can a younger player step up against a weak defense? Does Josh Carlton have a repeat performance on offense? In a game where passing will be very important, how can the Huskies get Eric Cobb more involved as a swing passer?
When ECU has the ball: Can anyone except Shawn Williams be an effective three-point shooter? Will the talented but inconsistent Isaac Fleming give Vital more than he’s capable of, or can UConn’s top perimeter defender shut down the volatile point guard? How does Hurley line up his team against the inside-out combo of impressive freshman Jayden Gardner and sparkplug Seth LeDay?
How to watch
Where: Greenville, North Carolina
When: 2 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network