Less than a minute into UConn’s eventual 64-61 win over Memphis, the injury bug bit the Huskies for the second time this season. This time around it was standout freshman Akok Akok going down, after the impact of an awkward landing completely ruptured his left Achilles.
Akok underwent successful surgery Tuesday night and returned to campus Wednesday, swinging by practice and getting a big group hug from his teammates.
Between Akok’s Achilles and Tyler Polley’s torn ACL, UConn (14-11, 5-7 the American) is limping to the end of its final season in the American Athletic Conference without two of their five opening night starters. While the Huskies held on Sunday afternoon to squeak by the Tigers, losing Akok — the lifeblood of the defense and one of the best shot-blockers in the nation — will be a difficult challenge for Coach Hurley’s squad to overcome.
Isaiah Whaley seems ready to do his best Akok impression, however, after he stepped up big in Akok’s absence with five points, seven rebounds, and six blocks during a team-high 34 minutes. It’s still uncertain if he will crack the starting lineup, but Whaley is sure to see an uptick in minutes for the rest of the season at power forward and occasional time as a small-ball five man as well.
In addition to Whaley, Brendan Adams could fill in during Akok’s absence as part of a smaller UConn starting five. After playing just 29 minutes and scoring three total points in the first two games of February, Adams has bounced back as of late. He’s averaging 12 points per game and shooting 35 percent from deep in his last three games.
Regardless of the starting lineup, Akok’s absence means UConn will almost certainly have a harder time with Temple than they did earlier this season. During that game, the Huskies blew out the Owls (13-12, 5-7 the American) at Gampel Pavilion for an easy 78-63 victory. This time around, the Huskies head to Philadelphia to face an Owls team that is 3-2 since their loss to UConn and is coming off a 20-point loss to Big Five rival Villanova.
In their last matchup, the Huskies excelled at slowing down Owls star Quinton Rose, who scored 15 points on 6-18 shooting. Rose comes into this matchup on a hot streak, scoring 25, 23 and 22 points in his last three games. He’s by far the most important player in this offense and if UConn can slow the 6-foot-8 senior down again — a much taller task without Akok — the Huskies should pull out the win.
Outside of Rose, Nate Pierre-Louis gave the Huskies fits and is coming off a 16-point, nine-rebound effort against Nova. UConn will need to keep Pierre-Louis off the foul line after he hit eight free throws in their last matchup and was 6-6 from the stripe in the Owls’ recent loss to the Wildcats.
Guard Alani Moore was a non-factor against Villanova, but might be saving his best for conference play where he’s shooting 43.9 percent from deep. He doesn’t shoot often, but he usually makes it count when he does.
All in all, this is a tough test for the Huskies. They’ve struggled on the road all season and just won their first road game of the year two weeks ago. They’ll go for road win No. 2 against a solid Temple defense and will need to continue to hit from the 3-point line to have a chance of leaving Philly victorious.
A good chunk of the Huskies’ success Thursday night will once again depend on freshman James Bouknight, who was 0-4 from deep against Memphis after going 8-13 from three in his previous three games. If he can continue to score at a high rate and get some 3-pointers to fall, there’s still enough talent on this team to grind out the win.
Prediction: Even without one of their best all-around players in Akok, the Huskies have the talent to compete with this Temple team and still match up well with the Owls. Bouknight and Christian Vital do the heavy lifting on offense, while Isaiah Whaley cleans up on the boards and blocks shots for at least 25 quality minutes. It’s a closer game than their previous meeting, but UConn squeaks by, 68-63.
HOW TO WATCH
Where: Liacouras Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network