UConn men’s basketball might set the record for most heart-rending losses in a season, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t positives to take from their latest gutting defeat, 79-75 to Tulsa.
The should-be closing lineup
Although UConn suffered a fourth-straight heartbreaking loss to Tulsa on Sunday, you wouldn’t know it when Akok Akok and Sidney Wilson were sharing the court.
On-court as the center and power forward, respectively, the UConn offense looked totally transformed. Akok was wild around the rim, blocking nearly every shot in existence as usual, and seemingly relishing as working as the lead rim protector. Sid Wilson was as wild and unpredictable as ever, the young guards were running around crazed, moving the ball frequently, and it all just worked.
“When all those young guys were out there, we brought the energy. We had a bit of relief and it felt good, you know, the crowd was into it...It brought a little glimpse of what’s to come in the future,” Akok said.
This isn’t a fairly new development either. Lineups with Akok and Wilson outscore opponents by 23.8 points per possession; they shoot better, rebound better, and even turn the ball over fewer times than when those two aren’t on the court together.
So Hurley went back to it in the second half, with UConn down 11 at the 16:55 mark. They immediately made an impact on the game with a Jalen Gaffney three assisted by Wilson, a Wilson dunk, more heroics by Gaffney and James Bouknight, then a Wilson driving layup that blew the roof off of the XL Center.
“I thought Gaffney, Akok, Bouknight all showed the ability to eventually turn these types of games into victories, along with Brendan [Adams] and Sid [Wilson],” head coach Dan Hurley said. “Three sophomores and two freshmen were our best players today, and they gave us the type of effort that we could have definitely won with.”
Gaffney hasn’t always had the best, most consistent rookie season, but he was at his peak when running with these super-small lineups, distributing well and playing great defense for a young guard of his size.
UConn fans already know that Akok Akok’s defense is on another level, but Sunday was an example unto itself.
For most players, team defense isn’t apparent. Akok isn’t your typical defensive prospect. When the freshman is on the court, he’s a magnet deflecting the ball away from the hoop. Even UConn’s better recent opponents, Houston and Villanova, had trouble gaining the confidence to drive inside against him, so this was readily apparent for Tulsa.
Akok had a career-high seven blocks and altered countless shots, as Tulsa had to duck and dive to avoid his 7-foot-3 wingspan obstructing the hoop. Pretty soon, nobody would even challenge the big man under the rim, save for Tulsa’s all-conference big man Martins Igbanu.
“I think [the way teams have been playing me] is great, I’ve wanted to get a game like this all year, but some teams tried to play me different and get me in foul trouble early,” Akok said.
Akok’s impact also came on the offensive end and on the glass, two areas where he hadn’t quite put it together yet, with seven boards and a season-high three 3-pointers, including a clutch late-game three that helped keep the Huskies close in the final minutes.
So Close, Yet So Far (Again)
For the fourth game in a row, UConn took their opponent to the wire and even had the lead late before seeing victory slip through their grasp. At their best, the Huskies have more than enough talent to compete with anyone in the conference and even some of the top teams in the country, but UConn hasn’t shown it can string together enough plays late in games to win games. This stat from the New Haven Register’s Dave Borges helps put it in perspective:
UConn's last OT win was against Monmouth on Dec. 2, 2017.— David Borges (@DaveBorges) January 26, 2020
Hurley and the Huskies have enough talent to eventually come out ahead in one of these close games. Who knows whether that will happen sooner rather than later, though, or even this season at all. Hurley looked to try something new against Tulsa with Gaffney in the crunch time lineup instead of Alterique Gilbert, but it’s unclear if that will stick throughout the season.
Either way, it has to be disheartening for this team to play well against quality opponents for long stretches yet have nothing to show for it other than a four-game losing streak. With postseason basketball firmly out of the question, it’s up to Hurley and the veteran leadership on this UConn team to try and break through from these struggles and help lay the foundation for what will hopefully be a more successful 2020-21 season as the Huskies return the Big East.