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UConn men’s basketball conference tournament roundtable

Reflections on the Huskies’ strong regular season finish and predictions for their final AAC tournament fate.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

For the first time in four years, the UConn men’s basketball team finally has a winning season in Dan Hurley’s second year as head coach. While the Huskies have lost two key starters to injury this year, UConn has still managed to play some of its best basketball during the final weeks of the season, winning eight of their last 10 games.

Even with this late-season success, The Huskies’ only real chance at getting back to the NCAA tournament this year will be by winning the American Athletic Conference tournament. Before Hurley and UConn start conference tournament play on Thursday, The UConn Blog staff reflects on the season so far and makes some predictions on how this weekend will play out.

Biggest surprise of the 2019-20 season

Tucker Warner: I’ll take the obvious answer and say Isaiah Whaley developing into one of the team’s most important players. Whaley hadn’t fully developed into a role by the halfway point of the season, but after injuries took down his teammates, he became a two-way asset, averaging nearly 14 points on efficient shooting over the final six games of the season, facilitating inside-out ball movement, and snuffing out the opponent’s pick and roll. I had always hoped he’d turn into a player of this caliber, but I didn’t expect it this quickly.

Luke Swanson: I’ll take the next obvious answer and say Jalen Gaffney. There were moments at the beginning of the year where Alterique Gilbert was struggling, and it looked like the Huskies would have to turn to Christian Vital to be their primary ball handler, since Gaffney’s struggles were so profound. In non-conference play, he was an inconsistent contributor at best, and at other times downright bad. But since he moved into the starting lineup in February, he has shown marked improvement in running the offense, and it’s made a huge impact for the team.

Dan Madigan: This one isn’t as positive, but Josh Carlton’s struggles have been unexpected. As last season came to an end, Carlton looked like a legitimate dominant big man that could dominate on both ends of the floor. This year, with the offense running through him for a good chunk of the beginning of the year, Carlton was putting up decent numbers but was inefficient. Since then, the offense has moved more through the guards, and Carlton has held his own as a rebounder, but he isn’t the dominant big man constantly flirting with double-doubles like some thought he could be this season.

Patrick Martin: The Jeremy Lamb comparisons by yours truly seemed like a best-case scenario for James Bouknight his freshman year. Instead, we’re getting Rip Hamilton comparisons now, and has already piqued NBA scouts’ interests to the point that some fans want him to slow down so he can stay another year. It’s no secret UConn has struggled in its halfcourt offense, and part of their improved play down the stretch is having the “toss the ball to the kid and let him create something” play.

March X-factor

Tucker: Alterique Gilbert’s play has the potential to raise UConn into an AAC title contender, or sink the team’s hopes entirely. No pressure! But having a guard of his caliber come off the bench gives UConn a real opportunity to jump beyond their opponents, and Gilbert’s play has gotten more consistent since he was replaced in the starting lineup. If he’s cut down on the needless turnovers, all he provides is explosiveness on offense and high-effort defense.

Luke: James Bouknight. Bouknight has been taking AAC opponents by surprise all year, but teams seeing him for a third time this year may have figured him out. But the prodigious freshman has also grown over the course of the year, tightening up on the turnovers while remaining efficient and playing as big of a role in the offense as ever.

Madigan: It has to be senior Christian Vital. Vital desperately wants to get to his first-ever NCAA tournament and has done pretty much everything in his power to make that dream a reality as of late. He’s scored at least 21 points in six of his last seven games, including a season-high 28 in the regular season finale against Tulane. Most importantly, he’s taking smarter shots and hitting them at a higher rate than ever. Vital shot nearly 39 percent from three (12-31) in his last four games and shot at least 53 percent from the field three times in that span. Combine that with his usually stout defense and rebounding abilities and Vital has the makings of another guard that can carry UConn in March.

Martin: This is fresh in my mind, but did anyone notice Brendan Adams enter the Tulane game? He shot or took the ball to the rim every time he touched the ball, a renewed aggressiveness that sometimes seems to evade the sophomore. His size draws fouls, and while he’s a streaky shooter, there’s plenty of chances to get hot this weekend. If he’s coming off the bench attacking downhill, and Gilbert is in “good distributor” mode, UConn going seven deep is less of a detriment.

Time machine moment (go back and change one outcome)

Tucker: The Huskies have a few good wins under their belt, so they wouldn’t necessarily need one more of them in order to sneak onto the bubble. They do have a few ugly losses though, and finished only 1-4 in overtime games. Change the worst one of those—the double-OT loss to Temple—and they remove one of their worst conference games, as well as finish the regular season on a seven-game winning streak.

Madigan: In a perfect world, neither Tyler Polley nor Akok Akok suffer their season-ending injuries. For the sake of this question, let’s say Polley’s injury never happens. That gives UConn another legit shooter alongside Vital and allows for some fun and effective small ball lineups with Polley at the four and Isaiah Whaley, who has absolutely excelled since the Huskies lost Akok, at the five. That front court alone would be a matchup nightmare for basically every team in the conference.

Luke: I think if there’s one thing this UConn team needs — hell, if there’s one thing any team in the country needs — heading into postseason play, it’s a 6’9” knockdown shooter. All of the injuries have been devastating, and if I could go back I would alter all of them, but Polley’s has been the toughest from a lineup construction standpoint.

Martin: We never leave the Big East. Oh, you mean this year? That Temple loss was brutal, but another underrated one; the Wichita State double-OT heartbreaker. This was the first of a brutal four-game stretch for the Huskies, and if they steal this one, perhaps they learn to squeak out another one during this stretch. So, I’d hop back in my time machine and have Carlton drill that second free throw in the first OT. UConn’s up one, stops the Shockers once, and comes away with a top 25 scalp.

Favorite UConn lineup

Tucker: The rarely-seen lineup of doom, with Christian Vital, Alterique Gilbert, James Bouknight, Tyler Polley, and Akok Akok. Five shooters, five defenders.

Madigan: I love the lineup of doom. With Polley and Akok out though, I will go with the closest alternative that Hurley has to offer: Vital, Gaffney, Bouknight, Brendan Adams and Isaiah Whaley. It’s a small but quick lineup with just enough shooting and rebounding to make things work. Bouknight and Adams in particular have done a great job getting open in the high post.

Martin: Vital, Bouknight, Gaffney, Adams, and Whaley. The dynamic duo for scoring, Gaffney a third ball handler, Adams’ size helping the Huskies switch on everything, and Whaley patrolling the paint.

Luke: It’s more nostalgia than anything, but my favorite lineup of the season was the lineup of doom. It only saw 14 possessions on offense, 13 on defense, but outscored opponents by 50 points per 100 possessions. It burnt too bright for this world, but hopefully the Huskies can create some sort of substitute for it next year, subbing out Gaffney and Adams for Gilbert and Vital.

Over/Under: 49.5 points for Christian Vital for AAC tournament

Tucker: UConn should play more than enough games for Vital to score 50 total points across the tournament even if he slumps. I’m going over.

Martin: Heading to Vegas to smash that over. Even if he’s (hopefully) used sparingly vs. Tulane, UConn needs a full heaping of Snipa to get past Wichita State and likely Cincinnati.

Madigan: I do think Vital comes back down to earth a little bit, but he’s playing so well that I’d be shocked if he doesn’t eclipse this arbitrary mark. If he doesn’t, something went terribly wrong for this team.

Luke: This really comes down to an over/under of 2.5 games spent by Vital in the tournament, since you know he’s going to get his buckets. I’ll go under, just to be the blog’s resident killjoy, since I think it’s a coin flip whether the Huskies can get by Wichita State.

How far will UConn go in AAC tournament?

Tucker: Far be it from me to be optimistic, I think they have the right schedule to make a run, and I’m not a big fan of how UConn’s potential opponents have been playing lately. I think they make the final game.

Madigan: I can easily see the Huskies rolling past Tulane and squeaking by Wichita State. After that, it’s a bit cloudier. I think UConn is hotter than a team like Cincinnati, but I’m worried that the lack of depth might catch up to them after three games in three days. I think this run unfortunately stops in the tournament semifinals to Cincinnati.

Martin: Barring that egregious charge call I’m clearly still seething over, UConn picks up a win vs. the Shockers earlier this year. Cincinnati doesn’t scare me, because they’ve had some head-scratching close games lately. So I’m not as deterred by UConn’s lack of results on the road, mostly because the competition in front of them is beatable. But four games in four days is Kemba/Shabazz-esque, and the Huskies simply don’t have the depth to get that far. UConn and Vital fight til the last second in the final, make several NCAA bubble teams come down with a severe case of the flop sweats on Sunday, but ultimately falls short.

Luke: Tulane is pretty much a foregone conclusion, but I don’t think UConn holds a huge advantage over Wichita State. A tournament environment doesn’t favor the Huskies with their lack of depth, but I think they can squeeze by the Shockers. Then, they’ll probably run into a wall against Cincinnati as that lack of depth catches up to them.

AAC tourney champ

Tucker: Houston has been the clear best team in the AAC all year, and it would take a big upset to take the title from them. Luckily, UConn might not need to win the conference championship in order to make the NCAA Tournament, especially if they beat Wichita State and Cincinnati along the way.

Madigan: I agree with Tucker. This is Houston’s tournament to lose. If UConn does get to the title game, it will be interesting to see how the game shakes out. An empty Dickies Arena is very different from a packed Gampel Pavilion.

Martin: I really don’t want to pick Houston. I’m not sold on them at all this year. But the way the bracket shakes out, they should waltz to the final and get an absolutely gassed UConn team and maybe even a pro-Houston crowd. That’s enough for the Cougars to punch their ticket.