The last time Dan Hurley and the Huskies took the floor at Gampel Pavilion, a sold-out crowd helped push them past a top-25 Houston team to send senior guard Christian Vital off with a key conference win. When UConn returns to action Wednesday night against Central Connecticut State, everything is going to be very different.
After the 2020 postseason was cancelled, the Huskies unceremoniously completed their seven-year sentence in the AAC. No more home-and-homes with Houston, Tulsa, East Altoona State, etc. But as the conference slate gets a lot more enticing, Gampel Pavilion will be nearly empty as part of precautions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. While college sports and the rest of the world are trying their hardest, we hope, to prevent the spread of the virus, college basketball is back, for the time being.
Our squad at The UConn Blog took a crack at some predictions for how this crazy season might unfold.
Tucker Warner: It’s weird when your most reliable rebounder was the smallest man on the floor, but such was Christian Vital’s nose for the ball that he led the Huskies in total rebounds in two of the last three seasons. Now that he’s graduated, the leading rebounder will finally be a big man again. Despite being positioned more in the high post than the low post, I think Isaiah Whaley’s breakout means he’ll get enough run to lead the team in boards. Plus, the offense getting more talent means that Josh Carlton might not get enough shots to get his own offensive rebounds as frequently this year.
Mike Mavredakis: While this is a safe pick, I think Whaley is the right answer here. Last season he averaged the second-most rebounds per 40 minutes with 10.5 to Carlton’s 11.5. Whaley’s increased workload would theoretically push him ahead of Carlton in the rebounding race. I also just don’t trust Carlton’s hands enough after last season to put him above Whaley here.
Dan Madigan: Even though most of his rebounds were off his own shots last year, Carlton is the returning rebounding leader and certainly has enough skill on both ends to lead the team this season. While he might not be as fast or athletic as Whaley or as physical as Adama Sanogo, Carlton is still a skilled and experience big with enough to bang with the Big East’s big men, something that will certainly come in handy against stars like Seton Hall’s Sandro Mamukelashvili and Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
Tucker: Jalen Gaffney shows a lot of potential as a point guard, and will be leading the second unit, but R.J. Cole should be playing on the ball most often this year. Cole’s scoring is justifiably hyped up, as he averaged 22.5 points a game at Howard. But he also led the MEAC in assists both years as well. He’s a versatile playmaker. I’ll go with the unknown quantity here and say Cole.
Mike: This wasn’t a team with a real passer last season, but now they have a couple legitimate playmakers in a more grown version of Gaffney and Cole. I am going to go with Gaffney for the exact reason Tucker mentioned, Cole is a scorer even more than he is a passer. I think Gaffney’s role is more to be a complement Bouknight and other scorers than it is to create his own shot.
Madigan: Gaffney seems to have made major strides in this extended offseason to the point where there is a legitimate chance he takes Cole’s presumed starting spot sooner rather than later. I think Gaffney’s on-court chemistry with Bouknight leads to a few easy buckets each game on top of his regular output. Look for Gaffney to lead the Huskies in assists even in a bench role at the beginning of the season but earn a starting spot by the end of the calendar year.
Who will lead UConn in assists this season?
This poll is closed
Other (explain in comments)
Tucker: I’m going to go with the known quantity here and say James Bouknight, whose outside jumper is likely to improve from last season, on top of already being able to get into the lane at will, and play above the rim, and hit a pullup jumper, and...look, he’s capable of scoring in a lot of ways. The increased floor spacing UConn will have with their incoming talent should benefit the sophomore as much as anyone else on the team.
Mike: James Bouknight. It’s his team, his offense. Cole will provide additional scoring but it’s Bouknight who will reign supreme. You don’t get shout outs on Instagram from Kevin Durant for passing the ball.
Madigan: It has to be Bouknight. He’s an incredible offensive talent with a very high basketball IQ. And that doesn’t even mention his insane athleticism, which allows me to work in this amazing highlight from his freshman year.
Bouknight has the talent to sneak in to the back half of the NBA draft lottery with a strong sophomore season, and I fully expect him to pick up where he left by torching defenses, even against significantly stronger competition.
Best Big East rivalry to be renewed
Tucker: Oh, I’m sorry, was the rivalry with Tulsa not good enough for you? Could you not feel the excitement between UConn and East Carolina? The longtime animosity between the Huskies and the SMU Mustangs? The barbs we got from the supremely engaged fanbase of Tulane basketball?
Mike: I think Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard was mostly kidding when he said that getting UConn back in the Big East “sucks.” However, after UConn grabbed Sanogo and Samson Johnson from Seton Hall’s grasp, the rivalry is bubbling up. I am keeping an eye on Hurley’s alma mater, because the pot is running out of room for the bubbles.
Madigan: Call me old school, but it’s got to be Georgetown. During the dark ages of the AAC, the few matchups against the Hoyas always got the juices flowing. It’s going to be even better now that UConn and Georgetown are back in the same conference. Also, Georgetown might beat out DePaul for the worst team in the conference this year, and it will be a real treat to see the Huskies beat up on them in year one back in the Big East.
Which Big East rivalry are you most excited to renew?
This poll is closed
Big East Finish
Tucker: There are two teams that, if nothing else, should be more consistent than UConn this year. The Huskies will have a better chance to win the conference than some may think, but I think 3rd place is most likely. As good and improved as the Huskies are, I think a few seasons outside of major conference basketball may have skewed the expectations of the UConn faithful—you don’t just need to have a really good team to win a major conference, you need to have one of the best teams in school history*. Maybe this UConn squad is that, but they’ll have to prove it on the court first.
*Unless you’re Kansas, in which case you just win the Big 12 every year.
Mike: I know there are people who are understandably high on this UConn team. They have a lot of depth now after the additions they made this offseason, but I still think they have a room to grow. This is a 5th place team to me right now, they just don’t have the shooting yet. I am not ready to buy in until I see something on the court after their recent shutdown. This team has been advertised as the closest UConn team under Hurley’s watch so far, which is promising, but I need to see it first.
What place will UConn finish in the Big East?
This poll is closed
8th, 9th, 10th, or 11th
Big East Champion
Tucker: It has to be Villanova. Robinson Earl is the best NBA prospect in the conference, they’re a proven team with experience and chemistry, they’re well-coached, and most importantly, don’t at this point have any noticeable flaws to exploit. There are exactly two teams I’m overwhelmingly confident will finish in the top 10 at the end of the season: Baylor and Villanova. It would take either an outlier season from another team or an uncharacteristically poor Villanova season in order to unseat them this year.
Mike: This conversations starts and ends with Villanova. Creighton could sneak in, but it’s really down to just one team. They’re simply better than everyone else at this point. Book it.
Madigan: It’s never any fun to agree with the rest of the guys, but they’re right — this is Villanova’s conference to win. Jay Wright has put together another talented squad that will compete for an NCAA title even without last year’s star Saddiq Bey. I think Creighton or even Seton Hall might have a puncher’s chance, but it’s hard to see anyone but the Wildcats winning the conference this season.
Tucker: UConn will win a tournament game this year, provided the tournament is actually held. They might only get the one win, and that’ll depend on a few different factors and the health of the team in March. But I see the Huskies as a 6 or 7-seed at this point, and one of the stronger teams in that seeding range.
Mike: Despite the fact I am a bit low on this team for the regular season, I still think the postseason is potentially where they shine. Should the postseason be placed in a bubble format, as has been suggested, that could be an environment they thrive in. Other teams might struggle to stay upbeat and together in an enclosed area, whereas this team already has been in that setting already. I think they can make a deep Big East tournament run and maybe a get a couple games into the NCAA tournament. I’d say semi-final loss in the Big East Tournament and maybe a round of 32 in March Madness.
Madigan: I think a fifth place finish in the conference is a logical landing spot for the Huskies, which means, unlike in the AAC era, that UConn should still be able to get into the NCAA tournament as an at large bid. After that, it really comes down to matchups. But if Bouknight continues his superstar trajectory and seniors Tyler Polley and Whaley string together solid performances, this team has the size and skill to compete with anyone. A tournament win (or two) certainly is attainable.
Let us know your own thoughts and predictions in the comment section!