UConn men’s basketball’s 2020-2021 season will start with in-state matchup against Central Connecticut at Gampel Pavilion. With no fans in attendance, fewer non-conference games than usual, and the team missing practice time due to a positive COVID-19 test, this season will be one of the most unpredictable years in the history of college basketball. With that in mind, here’s a look at the key storylines surrounding Dan Hurley and the Huskies this year.
COVID-19 and its impact
UConn was already one of a growing number of teams that have had to shut down due to a positive COVID-19 test, but the recent resurgence in cases throughout the entire country has cast a doubt over whether or not this college basketball season can start safely. So far, the Huskies haven’t had a game cancelled or postponed, but it’s likely a matter of when, not if, that will happen. While it’s certainly disappointing that there won’t be fans in the stands and games (or the season) may get cancelled, it’s important to keep in mind that the main goal is to keep everyone involved — players, coaches, referees, etc. — healthy and safe. Even if America’s COVID-19 does improve over the course of the season, it will continue to loom over each and every game and the season as a whole.
Back in the Big East
After years of toiling in the American Athletic Conference, UConn is finally back where it belongs in the Big East. For Huskies fans, that means renewed rivalries with Georgetown, Villanova, Providence and Georgetown and, eventually, a return to Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament.
Dan Hurley and the Huskies will face much stronger competition, including the emergent Big East power in Villanova. While it certainly will be a bigger challenge, the increased competition allows for more chances for quality wins and a better chance at securing at-large NCAA tournament bids, and UConn’s recruiting has seen a bump as well. Providence head coach Ed Cooley is definitely not mad about UConn being back in the conference.
Oh, and no more dreaded road games against Tulsa.
Tyler Polley, Akok Akok return from injuries
Polley and Akok both had their seasons cut short last year due to injuries, with Polley tearing his ACL in practice in January and Akok tearing his Achilles against Memphis a month later. Both have been rehabilitating throughout this extended offseason, and Polley told reporters he’s at 100 percent heading into the opener against Central Connecticut. While it will likely take him some time to get back to game speed, his presence gives UConn a knockdown 3-point shooter and versatile defender that can guard four positions with ease.
Akok is also progressing well from his injury, and while he won’t play against CCSU or Hartford, he is expected to return to the court before the end of 2020. With a healthy Akok and Polley, UConn becomes a long, athletic and defensively versatile team.
Point guard position battle
After sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, point guard R.J. Cole is ready to presumably start at point guard this season for the Huskies. After two stellar seasons at Howard where he led the MEAC in scoring and assists as a sophomore, Cole should be able to complement James Bouknight as the team’s second scoring option and is more than capable of creating and taking his own shot.
Sophomore Jalen Gaffney got off to a rocky start in his first season in Storrs, but eventually got into the starting lineup by the end of the season. Gaffney has reportedly continued to develop rapidly over the offseason, packing on muscle and refining his skills. It’s not out of the question that he could outplay Cole for the starting point guard spot by year’s end. If not, Hurley should have two formidable ballhanders to rely on and let Bouknight run off screens for easy touches. Cole and Gaffney could see time on the floor together to give Cole some off-ball opportunities as well.
James Bouknight stock watch
After missing the first few games of his freshman season due to suspension, Bouknight quickly established himself as the Huskies’ best player. Between his athleticism, basketball IQ and scoring ability, he was able to single-handedly swing games in UConn’s favor even in a limited role to start. Now, the secret is out.
Bouknight is gaining buzz nationally as one of the best players in the country, having already been named to Naismith Award watch list and being recognized by ESPN’s Jay Bilas as one of the most underrated players in the country. He’s already appearing on mock drafts, mostly in the second round, but could easily play his way into becoming a first round pick. If he posts considerably better numbers than his first season (13.0 points per game, 4.1 rebounds per game, 34.7 percent from three) and leads the Huskies back to the NCAA tournament, he could even sneak his way into the back half of the lottery.
Out of the four freshmen — Andre Jackson, Adama Sanogo, Javonte Brown and Richie Springs — only Jackson and Sanogo figure to make a significant impact, at least at the start of this season. Jackson brings highlight-reel athleticism and talent, and comes to UConn as arguably the most hyped recruit since Jalen Adams. While Jackson should be able to make an impact almost immediately on the fast break, he’ll need to continue to improve his shooting in order to stick on the floor for extended periods of time.
Sanogo offers legitimate size at 6-foot-9, 240 pounds — a body type reminiscent of bigs from the old Big East days. He’s certainly raw around the edges, much like Brown and Springs, but should be able to contribute some quality minutes due to his energy and physicality, especially on the boards.
As for Springs, who redshirted last season, Hurley raved about his rebounding ability in the offseason, and the New Hampshire native has the ability to step out and stretch the floor. He’ll have his work cut out from him earning minutes, but could spell Polley, Whaley and Akok for stretches.
Brown is a legitimate redshirt candidate for this season, but is an imposing presence at 7-foot-1 and is a capable shot blocker. The Canadian product chose UConn over Kansas and Texas A&M, and was already young for his class of 2021 before reclassifying to join UConn this season.
Regardless of how much each freshmen plays this season, this class — along with the top-10 ranked class of 2021 — is the foundation of the Dan Hurley era at UConn. The experiences and growing pains from this upcoming season could help pave the way for sustained success for years to come.