The collection of big men on the UConn men’s basketball roster surprised many fans during the 2018-19 season. Some of the surprise was good, and some not so good. In the current form of basketball, this is to be expected; teams rely on their centers far less than ever before, and the amount of value they create is now primarily due to how well they fit within their team.
As Dan Hurley prepares for his second season at the helm in Storrs, he’s undoubtedly looking to see the progress his group of players makes, as well as what traits his non-centers need from the big men.
Undoubtedly the breakout star of the UConn frontcourt, Josh Carlton showed significant growth in his sophomore season. Having already exhibited several important skills as a freshman, the reliable starting center continued to develop into one of the best players on the team.
His strong defensive instincts evolved into consistent defensive play, and he worked just a little bit more on his game around the basket to also become a source of regular efficient points. Essentially everything in Carlton’s skillset improved in his sophomore season, which is exactly what you would want out of a young starter.
Carlton’s game still isn’t as versatile as the best big men in college basketball, which will hopefully be his focus as he prepares for his junior year. Improved foot speed would allow him to guard more players, and increased shooting range could help the team’s offense spread out just a little more.
That said, he has every skill one would want out of their center, and simply continuing to improve on what he already has would make him one of the best centers in the American Athletic Conference. But for a player with room to grow, it’s natural to wonder if he could develop secondary skills and become a genuine game-changer.
Redshirt senior Eric Cobb stepped into the backup center role full-time in 2018-19 and got to display more of his ability than in his junior year. Cobb was a solid traditional center in a backup role, but had always shown flashes of greater ability, finishing his UConn career with a .500 three-point percentage (he made three of six attempts) and dishing seventeen assists in his final season.
He was also, of course, a fully capable rebounder who could finish at the rim. The one knock in his game was defense, where despite underrated effort, he didn’t always succeed in one-on-one or post-up situations with opposing — and often larger — centers.
Playing for a team without Carlton may have given Cobb more opportunities to showcase his full range of skills. Even in limited minutes, unlocking his versatility seemed like a tantalizing option. The Huskies, who may be able to play four shooters at all times next season, would love to have the option of playing five of them. If Cobb had one more year of eligibility, he could play an even bigger role this upcoming season. Unfortunately for UConn, his time with the team has ended.
Cobb may be able to secure a spot with a team outside of Europe’s top leagues, but if he exhibits consistency with the secondary skills he always showed glimpses of, he could have a professional career for years to come.
Kassoum Yakwe, a graduate transfer from former Big East rival St. John’s, suffered a season-ending injury before conference play began, and played only 142 minutes over 13 games during his time with the Huskies. Nonetheless, he exhibited some defensive ability when facing weaker opponents, but he struggled when playing up against stronger teams.
Undersized for a center without overwhelming athleticism, Yakwe’s constant effort wasn’t always enough to overcome his limitations at this level of play. His attitude and experience endeared him to the team, but it’s likely Cobb would have taken almost all of his minutes by the end of the season anyway.
Yakwe may have a future in professional basketball as an undersized center in a league that still values the skills he does have.
After a productive-by-necessity freshman season where several teammates went down with injury, Isaiah Whaley slid down the bench as a sophomore, playing only 83 minutes (spread out across 23 games) in 2018-19.
The lanky power forward did not get worse, of course, but his skillset fits Kevin Ollie’s preferred style of basketball a lot better than it does Dan Hurley’s. Whaley may have to reinvent himself as a basketball player in order to truly mesh with the team Hurley has built in the past year and a half.
Although it’s impossible to project Whaley for fewer minutes without an injury, it’s also hard to see where his playing time would significantly increase next season. Hurley wants his big men to either be able to shoot, finish at the rim, or guard opposing centers. Whaley, for all his positive attributes — good defensive instincts, rebounds solidly, looks to pass the ball, and shows potential to adding a mid-range jumper — hasn’t yet displayed any particular ability in any of those areas.
Adding bulk to his thin frame could go toward improving his post defense and finishing skills. If he develops next season, he’ll have an important role as a backup. If he doesn’t, a deeper forward group could keep him on the bench again.
Mamadou Diarra had his UConn playing career come to a sad end this offseason, as injuries piled up to the point where continuing to rehab in order to play at this level may do more harm than good for his body. Thankfully, Hurley and UConn staff did the right thing in not only allowing Diarra to stay on scholarship until his studies have completed, but also keeping him with the team as a student assistant coach.
Diarra never got to show what he could do as a player at full strength (even when he regularly played in 2017-18, he never looked like he was at 100%), but did exhibit basketball IQ and heady play when on the floor.
Playing just six total minutes last season, Diarra converted one of his two field goal attempts and blocked a shot, for the only two stats he recorded. Those six minutes ensured his playing career finished with a positive net rating, though, which is emblematic of what might have been. Here’s hoping his early start among the coaching ranks sets him up for a long career in basketball.