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UConn men’s basketball: Takeaways from the start of conference play

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It hasn’t always been pretty, but UConn has what it takes to be a competitive team in the AAC this year.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

It has been a season of highs and lows for the UConn men’s basketball team this year. After back-to-back atrocious performances in losses to Cincinnati and USF, the Huskies rebounded with a home win over Tulane, followed by an inspiring comeback against Wichita State at the XL Center that fell just short in double overtime.

While it’s certainly not ideal that UConn is just 1-3 in the American Athletic Conference, the the last two games have done enough to show that the losses to Cincinnati and USF - the Huskies’ first true road games of the season - were more of an aberration than an indicator of their actual talent.

While the injury to starter Tyler Polley throws a wrench into things for the rest of this season, here’s what we know about this team through their first four games of conference play:

Play small and play fast

Polley’s injury and overall inconsistency have led to Dan Hurley trying out some new lineups. With Tulane trying to claw back into the game at Gampel on Wednesday night, Hurley trotted out the first true “small ball” lineup of the season for extended minutes. This lineup, which featured Christian Vital, Alterique Gilbert, James Bouknight, Polley and Akok Akok, effectively used its speed, athleticism and talent to keep Tulane at bay and secure the win.

Polley is no longer available, but Hurley can still get comparable athleticism with Sid Wilson at the four spot, rebounding from Isaiah Whaley, or even Brendan Adams in a pinch against smaller teams. As long as Akok is on the floor, his shotblocking and rebounding ability can give UConn an advantage down low.

Speaking of running, the Huskies were able to claw back from a nine-point deficit on Sunday to force overtime thanks to a full court press that forced some crucial Wichita State turnovers. While Hurley likely isn’t confident enough in his whole roster to press all game, it would be encouraging to see the Huskies come out against Villanova and/or Houston in a press to start to try and force some turnovers and get their transition offense going. With UConn struggling in half court sets, more fast break points off the press could keep the Huskies in games.

Replacing Tyler Polley

Even though the Huskies hung around with Wichita State on Sunday, it isn’t going to be easy for the Huskies to contend night in and night out without Polley. The ceiling for this season is lower because of his absence.

Before his injury, he posted a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double against Tulane and was UConn’s leader in 3-point percentage (40.5) and offensive rating (127.5). While he was less effective than that in his first three conference games (104.5 offensive rating, 7.3 points per game and scoreless against Cincinnati), he served as the Huskies’ only solid 3-point shooter and had the ability to defend multiple positions.

With his combination of size, shooting ability and length, there isn’t really one player that Hurley can turn to replicate that type of production. However, Bouknight slid into the starting role and produced, scoring 16 points and adding six rebounds.

Moving forward, it will likely be Bouknight and Adams that see the biggest uptick in minutes, and while the two have been productive in smaller roles, their ability to contribute when given more minutes could make or break this team during conference play.

And after Sunday’s performance, Sidney Wilson should be in line for more minutes, but that depends more on his consistency on both ends more than anything.

Can Sidney Wilson step up and earn regular minutes?

Wilson has played sporadically over the past six weeks, appearing in just six of the Huskies’ last 10 games. In those six games, he’s played at least 10 minutes just four times, but saved his best for when UConn needed him most against the Shockers, delivering a 12-point, four-rebound and two-block performance.

From the minute he entered the game, Wilson provided some much needed energy on both ends, best exemplified by this crazy sequence to close the first half.

Wilson’s athleticism is off the charts, and while he hasn’t shot the ball very well this season, he proved he could hit shots when it matters by drilling a game-tying 3-pointers against Wichita State to force overtime. He doesn’t need to shoot a ton of threes each game, but hitting one or two and capitalizing on putback dunks at the rim could really help replace some of the offense lost due to Polley’s injury.

Wilson has likely struggled to consistently get minutes due to poor defensive positioning. While he is an excellent shot blocker, Wilson lost his man or got beat back door on numerous possessions, leading to a handful of easy baskets. Fortunately, defensive positioning isn’t a terribly hard problem to fix, and Wilson seems to have practiced well as of late according to Hurley’s postgame comments. If he can become less of a liability on defense in half court sets, he could easily play his way into becoming the first or second man off the bench and a consistent contributor on both ends.

Josh Carlton needs to get going consistently

Entering this season, fueled by a few dominant performances near the end of his 2018-19 campaign, Josh Carlton was picked by many to make the leap this year and become an upperclassmen leader for the Huskies.

The junior is a bigger part of the UConn offense than ever, but his efficiency has taken a nosedive. His .565 field goal percentage at the rim and overall field goal percentage has been low, especially in conference play: .438 through three games, including his impressive performance against Tulane in a win. That’s a stark drop-off from his .614 mark last year, and even his .539 percentage as a freshman.

Sunday was no different, as Carlton hit just 3 of 10 shots. He’s not getting to the line as much as recent years either, and to make matters worse, he’s hitting under 50 percent of his free throws.

His good games have been peppered in there — 18 points against Indiana, 19 points and 12 rebounds against Iona — but for Carlton’s offensive prowess to outweigh his shortcomings in defending big men, he’ll have to put together more games like that, and fewer like the one he played Sunday.