In their first game back from a second shut down due to COVID-19, UConn men’s basketball fell to No. 9 Creighton in the Big East opener, 74-76. Here are some takeaways from the Huskies’ first game against a ranked opponent this season.
James Bouknight is playing like one of the best players in the country
Megan Gauer: The team overall looked rusty coming off their second shutdown of the season, but Bouknight picked up right where he left off. He put the entire team on his back on the offensive end, finishing with 40 of the Huskies’ 74 points and had either the bucket or the assist on 62.5 percent of the Huskies’ field goals.
In the first couple of games of the season, Bouknight seemed to disappear at times. That wasn’t the case at all today, which is something Bouknight noted as a big step forward after the coaching staff has been on him about playing a full 40 minutes. Obviously, Bouknight made his presence known on the offensive end, but even when shots weren’t falling he came up with big plays on the defensive end. Against a top-10 opponent, he looked like the best player on the floor for all 45 minutes of this game.
This is not a three-point shooting team
Megan: UConn took 14 three-point shots in the first half of the game against Creighton, accounting for nearly 50 percent of their attempts, and they hit just two of them. The Huskies headed into the game ranked 129th in the country (per KenPom) for three-point field goal percentage. Especially with Tyler Polley being on the bench, volume three-point shooting was not a recipe for success. The offense looked much better once UConn started going inside more and playing through Bouknight.
After the first half, this issue mostly corrected itself. However, in overtime, the Huskies reverted to throwing up shots from deep. With a couple of minutes remaining in overtime Carlton passed the ball out to Jalen Gaffney for three after catching it right under the basket. UConn needs to play to their own strengths in late-game situations, and three-point shooting isn’t one of them.
Room for improvement down low
Megan: UConn gave up too many opportunities for second-chance points, rebounding just 63 percent of Creighton’s misses. With under two minutes remaining, UConn gave up two offensive rebounds on one possession. That can’t happen down the stretch if you are going to close out a game like this one.
UConn’s guards did a nice job on the glass in this one. Tyrese Martin finished with 10 boards and Jalen Gaffney had seven. The Huskies’ bigs have to be better inside though. Carlton and Whaley combined for just eight boards, which contributed to Creighton finishing plus-seven on the boards. Foul trouble certainly played a role for Carlton and Whaley, but both need to box out and have a stronger presence on the glass.
Patrick Martin: It wouldn’t have been outrageous to say before the USC game that Josh Carlton had a chance to be buried on the depth chart. Isaiah Whaley had passed him, Sanogo was ahead of his development, and Akok Akok was waiting in the wings.
Instead, Carlton turned in arguably his best performance of his career vs. the Trojans, and earned a start against Creighton. After looking lost in the first five minutes, a quick Hurley hook had him relegated to the bench again. But Whaley foul trouble had Carlton back in quicker than anticipated, and he was a different man.
His only bucket he beat every big on the floor down the court, caught a pretty Gaffney pass in transition, and laid it in at full speed. Impressive stuff to go with five rebounds and three blocks in just 17 minutes. You’ll take those numbers any day from a rotational big man, and we’ve seen his potential for more. All four are clearly talented to be contributors in the rotation, and balancing the minutes between them is a luxurious problem to have.
Frustrating, but not a bad loss
Megan: As frustrating it is that the Huskies couldn’t close it out down the stretch, this isn’t a bad loss. A lot of positives can be taken from playing mostly well and taking a top-10 team to overtime, especially coming off of another shutdown. If the Huskies can find a second scoring weapon, they will be able to compete with the top of the Big East night in and night out.
Patrick: Can’t believe this needs to be addressed, but anyone that blames RJ Cole for the loss needs a hug. And anyone that takes to social media to blame RJ Cole should seek therapy. Athletes and their families read everything. Imagine how that impacts a college kid, one that’s only played four games of Division I ball in the last 18 months. That the Husky point guard then took to Twitter last night to apologize to UConn fans says all you need to know about the kid. Pure class.
With that out of the way, Cole deserves praise for his defense on Creighton’s All-American candidate Marcus Zegarowski. Cole held the Creighton star to 4-14 shooting — his worst percentage night of the season — and five turnovers. He harassed Zegarowski every step of the way, so much so that Coach McDermott spent most of the second half running his point guard through a litany of ball screens to shake Cole loose.
That kind of pressure wears on you as the game goes on. And sure enough, as regulation ticked down, Zegarowski had two open looks to win the game and clanged them. That’s the RJ Cole effect; he had disrupted one of the most rhythmic and efficient scorers in the country.