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UConn men’s basketball position preview: Guards

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Sophomore James Bouknight leads a talented, versatile unit

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

It’s a national tragedy. A black mark on democracy. A representation of social media’s pervasiveness. I demand they recount the votes.... that ultimately left UConn sophomore James Bouknight off the Preseason First-Team All-Big East team.

Any 2020-21 UConn men’s basketball preview starts and ends with ‘Bouk,’ but the buck doesn’t stop there. The Huskies boast a deep and talented backcourt, and sure, that sort of jargon gets thrown around by keyboard warriors every year. What makes this backcourt so intriguing and so different from recent iterations is that its centered around potential lottery pick. You can argue Dan Hurley has never coached anyone in college with as high of a ceiling as James Bouknight. This is also his full recruited backcourt of “his” guys. Given his recently-flexed recruiting chops in the summer, that should excite fans to no end.

Schematically, look for a lot of dual-point guard looks and a fluid definition of who initiates the offense. You’ll see a lot of four-out sets, dribble handoffs, as well as plenty high screen-and-rolls. There are mismatches galore for Hurley to exploit, so getting defenses to make the wrong switch or late rotation will be critical.

Defensively, the backcourt will press (13% of the time in ‘19-’20) and close out shooters with vigor. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the ball pressure ramped up in the halfcourt too, considering the size and rim protection of the frontcourt. With these broader strokes in mind, let’s break down the backcourt and see how each piece fits into UConn’s blueprint for a successful season.

James Bouknight, Sophomore

The hype is real; if the 6-foot-5 sophomore makes the leap, he could be the highest NBA draft pick UConn has had since Andre Drummond in 2012. I was fortunate to be present for his UConn debut, and everyone in that tiny Charleston gym just knew. The fluid athleticism. The innate basketball I.Q and NBA frame. All that was needed was a more-polished jumpshot and a coach that could mold a killer from a laid-back demeanor that never had to kick it into high gear. If you looked at UConn’s trajectory last season as a chart, it’s stock starting gapping higher when Bouknight’s development turned a corner around the middle of February. As Hurley put it, “he was playing as well as any freshman guard in the country the last third of the season.” After finishing his freshman season 15th in the AAC in scoring and landing on the AAC All-Freshman team, that seems like Bouknight’s floor. In what will likely be his final collegiate season, the ceiling does not exist.

He’s a marked man now. You don’t do things like this and not become a marked man.

Last year in this space, I wrote about how UConn men’s basketball head coach Dan Hurley would talk to the Husky legends hanging up on the rafters at Werth Center. A little over a year later, the closest pro he might be talking to now is James Bouknight. Meet or exceed these lofty expectations, you’ll see the Huskies back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. Coast, and UConn’s returning salvo back in the Big East becomes more of a whimper.

R.J. Cole, Redshirt Junior

The first incoming transfer since Rodney Purvis, Cole comes to Storrs with possibly even higher expectations than the Ferrari. After posting video game numbers at Howard, the jump to the Big East will probably be jarring to start. But there’s no doubt Cole is talented, and has spent a year in the UConn system to get acclimated. A plus shooter and crafty ball handler, he’s a calming presence for what’s still a very young team at its core. Cole’s role will be dictated by game flow. He can help a team in two different “modes:” either as the quarterback who sets the table and finds teammates in the right spots, or take over as lead guard and put the ball in the cup, probably when Bouknight and others are out or in foul trouble.

However, after having to literally do everything on offense for a sorry Howard squad, the last thing you want to do is play defense. At Howard, Cole was the Bill Murray-in-Space Jam on that end. That’s certainly a question mark for Cole; you just have to trust that a year with Dan Hurley will iron out any bad habits or lack of intensity. If Hurley can mold him into just an average defender, Cole’s well-rounded offensive skillset should help allay any defensive misgivings. Add it all up, and you have a contender for Big East Newcomer of the Year.

Jalen Gaffney, Sophomore

It’s fitting to now switch to the 6-foot-3 sophomore Gaffney. Perhaps the number one offseason storyline is who gets the starting point guard job; Cole or Gaffney. The latter looked like a deer in the headlights for the first half of last season, but like Bouknight, the lightbulb went off around February, and Gaffney started 11 of his last 12 games. From there, Gaffney was as advertised; a bouncy guard with flashes of poised offensive playmaking who averaged an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.1 when playing more than 20 minutes. His outside shooting leaves a little to be desired, but given the talent around him, the jumper just needs to improve enough where defenders respect it. He doesn’t have the scoring pedigree as Cole, but there’s still an air of interchangeability between the two. Both can run an offense, get you a bucket, or play off the ball.

Gaffney’s size and length mean the tools to being a plus defender are there, and there were flashes of it last season. There were even glimpses of some “dog” or “bite” on that end that Dan Hurley will surely chestbump at some point this year. He packed on 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, one of the main benefactors of “Coach Mike’s” (congrats on the new gig, Elise!) strength program and the always-hilarious “offseason transformation season” posts on social media.

Tyrese Martin, Junior

The man with the perfect last name was granted a NCAA waiver in September, and it made Hurley’s life much, much easier. Any other year, news of Tyrese Martin walking through that door would be met with a Prince Ali/Aladdin like parade. But given the return to the Big East, UConn’s red-hot recruiting, and James Bouknight buzz, the Martin news sort of fell under the radar.

Make no mistake, Husky fans will enjoy Tyrese Martin. The 6-foot-6 junior averaged almost 13 points and seven rebounds per game in all 30 starts for Rhode Island last year, and you know exactly what you get from him each time he steps on the court; a multi-level scorer that crashes the glass at an incredibly high rate for a guard (12th in the A-10 in rebounding last year.) He’s the perfect complement to any lineup; a tough, versatile wing with prototypical size that can slink out onto the perimeter and space the offense or slash into the paint on smallball mismatches. On defense, he can guard four positions. He’s the perfect Swiss-Army knife for what Hurley wants to do.

The beauty of Martin’s immediate eligibility is the depth it provides (sensing a theme here?) Tyler Polley, while cleared for full contact, can be eased back into the rotation now. If he shows some understandable rust, look for the veteran Martin to be featured more heavily as the team establishes its identity. Salty Rhode Island fans were vocal in criticizing Martin for his shot selection and inefficiency. But in Storrs, he’ll rarely be the first option, and will instead take what defenses give him. Don’t be surprised if Martin sees the most mismatches on the team.

Walkons need love too, so let’s take a second and py our respects.

Matt Garry, Junior

The man who turned down Jim Calhoun sadly tore his ACL and meniscus earlier this month, and is out for the season. Garry, a Southington, Connecticut native, began his UConn career as a student manager due to a schedule conflict despite making the roster his freshman year. He then joined the team as a preferred walk-on in the spring of 2019. He appeared in six games last year.

Andrew Hurley, Freshman

Look, I’ve been a coach’s son. I’ve been around coaches sons. They have it tougher than you think. In most occasions, they are chewed out more, held to impossibly high standards, and are always under the microscope. I have no doubt that will be Andrew Hurley’s life as a first-year walk-on at UConn.

Young Hurley comes to UConn after two years at East Catholic High School, one of the premier basketball factories in the state. The kid can play, and you know pops is going to make sure he goes hard every practice. As long as he doesn’t dress like this on game days, he should be fine.