UConn men’s basketball jumped out to a quick lead in the first half but looked sluggish across the rest of the night as it defeated the University of Hartford at Gampel Pavilion.
Here are some of our takeaways after the second game of the season.
The team is good, but still needs work
Aman: What makes this team already stand out compared to previous Husky squads is the clear upgrade in talent across the roster. Underclassmen and transfers have given the Huskies a new look and Dan Hurley has a lot of lineup options depending on the matchup, or if UConn gets into foul trouble like it did Friday night. We’ve seen a lot of old UConn teams go a lot closer with bottom-50 NCAA opponents, and even though Hartford cut the lead down to three at one point, UConn kept a comfortable buffer for most of the night.
That said, this game did get a little too close for comfort considering Hartford is not expected to be a good team this year, at all. While the Hawks represented an upgrade from CCSU, it would have been nice to see UConn keep the same energy it started with and win this one by 20+.
Dan Hurley cited immaturity and loss of focus in post-game, and a lot of times lazy defense that led to fouls. Getting Akok Akok back will be another incredible boost for this team, especially defensively. But until then the Huskies need to work on consistency and making sure they’re capitalizing on mismatches offensively because the level of competition is on the rise with a tournament next week and the Big East schedule looming.
Megan: While the second half left plenty to be desired yesterday, one bright spot was a noticeable improvement on the defensive end in the first half of the game. The Huskies looked considerably more focused, holding the Hawks to less than 30 percent shooting from the field instead of the 53 percent they allowed from CCSU on Wednesday night.
There’s still a lot to be improved on defense as well. As Aman said, a lack of focus and fouls from lazy defense contributed to things getting a little too close for comfort down the stretch. The Huskies also need to clean up on the defensive glass better. While they’re collecting plenty of their own misses on offense (48.6 percent so far, which ranks fourth in the country), they allowed Hartford to collect around 38 percent of their off-target shots last night. That number needs to be lower.
Starters, key rotation minutes still in flux
Aman: One downside of having so much talent across the roster is that it may be tough to figure out the right mix, a new and exciting problem for UConn to have, but it’s still an issue.
At guard any one of Jalen Gaffney, RJ Cole, James Bouknight, Tyrese Martin, Brendan Adams seem capable of having big nights and at the wing or stretch big Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley should be consistent contributors but Andre Jackson definitely needs some run as well. Up front, Adama Sanogo has shown a ton of promise while Javonte Brown is clearly a large dude, and Josh Carlton is eventually expected to contribute at a level similar to previous seasons. Also Akok will return.
We know Hurley favors guard-heavy lineups and often matchups may dictate they go small as well. It seems like bigs are a rare breed in college hoops these days, and depth up there is ever rarer, but at least UConn has it.
Ultimately, there’s competition for playing time which is always good, but sometimes players need space to grow and develop, and that may be tougher at this time. It’ll be interesting to see how minutes shake out across the season.
Tyrese Martin debuts
Aman: The transfer from URI had to sit out the first game because of a silly NCAA rule about a pickup game during the offseason, but looked like someone who will embrace the experienced reserve guard role he is slated for this season. He showed toughness and strength, grabbing ten rebounds, and an opportunistic offensive approach on his way to six points in his Husky debut. Hurley praised his performance after the game as crucial to the victory effort.
Luke: Martin looked hyper-polished in his role off the bench, just like UConn expected him to fresh off an extremely solid season at URI last year. He looks poised to continue a long tradition of rebounding guards, taking up the mantle of Christian Vital and Daniel Hamilton.
Bouknight continues to impress
Luke: Bouknight has a chance to be UConn’s highest draftee since Andre Drummond, and two games in he certainly has shown signs of an NBA lottery talent. Especially early on, Bouknight got whatever he wanted against Hartford. He showed his skill as a multi-level scorer, getting his first six points at the rim, then decided to move beyond the arc and drain a pair of threes just for the fun of it, one created off the dribble and one a simple catch-and-shoot.
James Bouknight: 16— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) November 28, 2020
The sophomore is getting it done early for @UConnMBB. pic.twitter.com/5HkcgGcXLC
Bouknight had 16 points at the half and 12 in the first five minutes of the game, including a one very smart hesi move finished with a dunk on his left and an off-ball cut under the basket that ended in an easy layup on the right. His day ended in foul trouble, like most of the UConn guards’, but in the first half he certainly lived up to the offseason hype.
Megan: Bouknight had his way on offense for most of the first half, and Hartford did not have an answer for him. For at least the first 10 minutes he outscored the Hawks’ entire team. His ability to take over a game and put this team on his back is already evident in stretches on the court. The next step is seeing if he can play at that level consistently.
Bouknight disappeared in the second half, which can partially be attributed to foul trouble. While his not being as involved doesn’t impact UConn’s ability to be successful against a team like Hartford, they are going to need him to play at a high level for the full game and avoid foul trouble as they get into tougher non-conference and Big East opponents.
Get your best shooters the ball
Megan: Tyler Polley did not take a shot until late in the second half yesterday. While his minutes were limited due to two first half fouls, the best pure shooter on the team having just two attempts in the game is not a recipe for success for UConn.
The good news is, the ball movement on offense already looks dramatically better than I can remember it looking in a long time. Still, last night the Huskies often settled for a contested jumper with plenty of time on the clock instead of looking for the extra pass. Getting the ball to Bouknight, Polley or Cole (who showed off his ability to shoot it in Wednesday’s game) is going to make this team more successful on offense.
Aman: Based on two games, it seems like R.J. Cole is a key driver for the offense, which seemed to lose its way after he hit the bench in the first half with foul trouble. In the past, UConn players have struggled to be assertive enough on the offensive end, even if they have the talent. This isn’t an issue for Cole who seems to embrace the offensive playmaking responsibilities and also seems to love shooting the ball.
When Cole was out, it would have been nice to see Polley take more shots, but that’s where maybe the exhibition environment of the game played a role because it seemed like the Huskies were just trying things out. Luckily Gaffney, Martin and Whaley did a nice job of stepping up in the second half to help UConn stay ahead. Keep in mind this team has had limited practice before the start of the season and has not had any exhibition opportunities, and has multiple new key players to fold into the rotation.