After a truly terrible performance in UConn men’s hoops’ American Athletic Conference opener, Dan Hurley thinks it may be time for some changes.
“I didn’t like some things I saw [tonight] at a number of positions. Whether it’s lineup changes or wrinkles to what we’re doing at either end of the court I have to find some answers,” Hurley said.
While the Huskies’ starting lineup and rotation has been fairly consistent this season, they also have spent the past three weeks either on break or playing buy-game opponents. In that span, UConn’s usual starting five of Christian Vital, Alterique Gilbert, Tyler Polley, Akok Akok and Josh Carlton have had their fair share of struggles. Wednesday night’s 67-51 loss proved to be problematic.
Carlton scored just two points on 1-6 shooting and couldn’t contain Bearcats big man Chris Vogt, who posted 19 points and five rebounds. Polley played a season-low 16 minutes and was held scoreless, and Hurley noted that he wasn’t thrilled by Polley’s level of play against Cincinnati. Of course, this loss can’t be pinned just on those two players, and there is room for improvement across the lineup.
“Moving forward, the leash is going to be a lot shorter with certain kinds of players that aren’t conducive to the type of plays, type of mindset that we want to put together,” Hurley said. “You need to shake things up a little bit, that was brutal today and embarrassing for anyone associated with UConn... everything is in play.”
It seems likely that the Huskies will trot out some different lineups when they take on USF in Tampa on Saturday.
So with that in mind, who’s in the best position to break into the starting lineup? Who is going to see more time?
But before we do that, some assumptions:
- Akok isn’t going anywhere. He’s brought hustle and strong defensive presence at a minimum all season, and the Cincinnati game was no different. He put up eight points with eight rebounds and four blocks and led the team in minutes. Barring a drastic change, he’s a lock to be in the starting five all season and is laying the groundwork for a special UConn career.
- Expect at least one, but likely both, of Vital and Gilbert to remain in the starting lineup. Both upperclassmen guards have been inconsistent, but both Hurley and the team in general hold them in high regard. Vital didn’t do much against Cincinnati, but has played well as of late and is the most experienced player on this team.
- Isaiah Whaley didn’t score against Cincinnati, but he was still excellent, grabbing six rebounds and four blocks in 22 minutes. While he’s added more to his game offensively this year and has always been a solid defender and rebounder, he still doesn’t offer enough offensively to step into a major role. Still, he is a legitimate bench asset and will be a huge help throughout conference play, especially against smaller lineups.
- Out of the five starters right now, Gilbert and Carlton are struggling the most but have arguably two of the most unique skillsets to this team. Outside of Jalen Gaffney, who is showing promise but is still struggling offensively, the Huskies don’t really have a solid ballhandler outside of Gilbert. For Carlton, he’s the only player with height and size to bang with opponents’ traditional big men down low.
- In grand scheme of things, starting lineups aren’t that big of a deal, but it does signify some change for this team and the opportunity to give some talented bench players more minutes. If any of the starters do get benched, their minutes likely will only change slightly. And if that does happen, it’s up to the new starters to make the most out of those extra minutes, as Hurley and his “short leash” might be quick to switch things back to how they’ve been if things get worse.
Here are the Huskies whose roles may see the biggest change in the coming days:
Bouknight may have cooled off a little bit since his coming out party at the Charleston Classic, but he’s still done enough to stake his claim as the Huskies’ most talented offensive player. For an offense that can still get stagnant at times, Bouknight has shown the ability to beat his man and score in a variety of ways. Even if he doesn’t get the starting nod, Bouknight certainly deserves more minutes - he’s third on the team with an offensive rating of 109.8, and although he isn’t a great ballhandler or defender, he still can do enough on offense and on the boards to pull his weight for extended periods.
Adams had a rough December, but finished strong as he put together back-to-back double-digit performances and shot 4-7 from deep against NJIT and Cincinnati. He isn’t as talented offensively as Bouknight, but is a solid 3-point shooter and has the edge as a better defender. While Bouknight may be flashier, Adams might just be the front runner to slide into the starting lineup due to his more well-rounded game and experience compared to Bouknight.
Sidney Wilson is not going to start Saturday. But he might benefit from Hurley’s changes this week. After steadily averaging more than 12 minutes a game to start the season, Wilson has played a total of eight minutes in UConn’s last three games. It’s always possible there are some outside factors that weigh into this, but Wilson is certainly a good enough player to get a second chance at some more minutes on basketball ability alone. If Hurley does make some tweaks to people’s minutes, it could lead to some weird lineups, allowing a versatile wing/stretch four player like Wilson to slide in and contribute.
Maybe Hurley does make some major changes for Saturday. Maybe he doesn’t. But if another game like the New Year’s Day loss to Cincinnati, the only thing that will be constant is change. In a perfect world, a starting five of Gilbert, Vital, Bouknight, Polley and Akok would be ideal. It puts the Huskies’ best players on the floor and gives the Huskies a smaller lineup that can easily run the floor, but might not be feasible against beefier lineups with a bigger, more traditional frontcourt, like Cincinnati’s.
That being said, sliding Adams or Bouknight in for Polley is a likely scenario. Even after Polley struggled against Cincinnati, the junior doesn’t deserved to get benched - he’s by far and away the team’s best offensive player statistically this season, posting an offensive rating of 129.4, the 23rd-highest mark in the country. However, a minor reduction in minutes could lead to at least same amount, maybe more, of shots with a second unit that features players less reluctant to look for or create their own shot. For a highly-efficient shooter like Polley, that might generate an offensive boost that would surely be appreciated.