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UConn men’s basketball 2019-2020 season in review: Backcourt

Christian Vital and Alterique helped change UConn’s narrative this year

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley spoke to reporters on the phone earlier this week, and while all the Big East talk was exciting, there was another part of the transcript stood out: “The identity we developed in year two is one of having a together team that displayed toughness on a nightly basis, the hardest playing team of the country, and about winning above all other things.”

That much is obvious to anyone that tuned in this year, but Hurley was quick to point out it was more than just the eye-test: “We were earning the respect of everyone we played,” said Hurley. “We hadn’t learned how to win yet, and, we took a very important step forward this year.”

The Husky backcourt was at the forefront of this changing of the guard (pun intended), and below we’ll break down how each individual helped restore the UConn narrative back to its glory days.

Christian Vital

The captain deserves every superlative in the book for this season. Tenth all-time in points, fourth all-time in steals. Fifth all-time in three-pointers made. Pound-for-pound, probably the best rebounding guard UConn will ever see. And that’s not even getting into the intensity and fight he brought every game. As head coach Dan Hurley, his teammates, and the American Athletic Conference all recognized, the flourish with which UConn finished the regular season coincided with Vital taking his game and leadership to another level. He finished the 2019-2020 season with the highest BPM (Box Plus/Minus) on the team, and should have been right up there with Precious Achiuwa for AAC Player of the Year honors.

Earlier in the season, he was his usual steady dose of defense and leadership, but the shot wasn’t always falling and he seemed to be pressing. His shooting percentages during some of UConn’s losses aren’t pretty, and with UConn’s 1-5 start to conference play, it looked like the senior’s legacy would be that of a stat-padder during program’s dark ages.

But in the last 10 or so games, he instead picked his spots much more efficiently, and helped accelerate the development of the young team around him culminating in a 26-point outburst to knock off No. 21 Houston.

More importantly, he was a consummate teammate and mentor for a younger team that desperately needed to forge its own identity, and it appears they adopted his.

For a squad ravaged by the injury bug, he was, as Hurley noted, Iron Man, and his chip-on-the-shoulder mentality he imparted on the kids is as much a legacy he’ll leave as is his considerable presence in the record books. “Snipa” deserved postseason ball and its a cruel twist of fate he didn’t get a crack at it as everything was finally coming together.

Alterique Gilbert

Hurley said it best: “Al’s time here hasn’t been easy, but he displayed amazing courage and leadership in the program, and we’re going to lose that.”

It was a bittersweet end to Gilbert’s UConn career, as the Georgia native announced he would seek a graduate transfer in his final year of eligibility. Finally healthy, the redshirt junior had the long legacy of great UConn point guards thrust on him from day one in November, despite not playing a full season healthy in the last four years.

What resulted was an inconsistent Alterique that unfairly drew heaps of criticism from keyboard jockeys online. Sure, he would dazzle you one minute and leave you scratching your head the next, but the positives always seemed to outweigh the negatives. Early-season decision-making down the stretch of games such as Xavier painted a big target on his back.

I still maintain that those struggles aren’t on Alterique, and simply that no one else on the team was capable of handling the facilitating, shot-creating role early on. Vital isn’t a point-guard, and Bouknight wasn’t ready for ball-handling responsibilities. And as local scribe Mike Anthony noted in this must-read piece, Gilbert read every bit of online vitriol thrown his way, and it took a severe toll on his mental health. That stuff is serious, and once more underscores the character Gilbert had at Storrs.

Shame on any UConn fans that piled on the kid. Not only are you wrong in evaluating his talent and role on the team, but you’re taking online pot shots at a kid who is battling demons as best he can.

Hurley, to his credit, saw Gilbert had too much on his plate, and sought a change of environment. Coming off the bench later in the season as the primary ball handler streamlined his role to running the offense, hitting the occasional open shot, and pestering the opposing team’s lead guard. He excelled at all of those things and without uttering a single word about his reduced burn. He took Hurley’s decision in stride, and the team seemed to right itself at that time not because of the reduced role, but because of a more relaxed Gilbert.

‘Rique’s career in Husky blue is over, and he should be celebrated for the heart, loyalty, and perseverance he showed every day on and off the court.

Brendan Adams

Secret time: I didn’t see how Adams would fit in this season; I thought he’d be the odd man out with this talented freshman class coming in. I’ll be the first to happily admit I was dead wrong.

Look at every championship team in the last 20 years and there’s a guy like Adams; a steady veteran presence that always seems to make the right play. For UConn purposes, think a bigger Donnell Beverly or Terrence Samuel with a jumpshot.

It’s impossible to bury a guy like him on the bench because he always seems to make something happen when he’s out there. The sophomore doesn’t excel at one particular skill-set, but he provides a little bit of everything; shooting, slashing ball-handling, size, and toughness.

You can point to multiple games (Buffalo and home against Cincinnati are two that leap out) where he single-handedly won UConn the game. He was critical down the stretch in Hurley’s three-guard lineups, and just like everyone else, seemed to be peaking as postseason play drew near.

Hurley seemed to roll with three-guard sets much more during UConn’s strong close to the season, so expect that trend to continue with the likes of Andre Jackson and RJ Cole coming into the fold. Just don’t ever count out Brendan Adams.

James Bouknight

Cherish every second of James Bouknight next year folks, because if he continues his trajectory, he won’t be around for long.

Going into the year, we all heard the hype. We bought the hype for a dollar fully aware we’d probably get 70 cents of return, at best. Instead, we found our investment had doubled before March and are running to our broker to buy more Dan Hurley recruiting stock.

The signs were there to start the season in Charleston. The sneaky athleticism, the innate shot-making ability. But he couldn’t connect on threes, so teams sagged off him. And of course, freshmen make freshmen mistakes, so there were bouts of inconsistency. But after the road Memphis loss, he put it all together and Christian Vital finally had a scoring partner to shoulder the offensive load.

It’s no coincidence Vital’s play skyrocketed when Bouk was doing his best Robin impression; defenses now had two shot-makers to key in on. It’s also no coincidence that Bouknight finished second among the backcourt in BPM (4.4). Only North Carolina Cole Anthony went a longer stretch during the season scoring 15 plus points, and ended his coming-out party with some AAC all-rookie hardware to boot. According to the stat-geniuses at Hoop-Explorer, what did UConn’s top seven most efficient offensive lineups have in common? James Bouknight.

Jalen Gaffney

Back in November, some moron said in our preseason roundtable that Jalen Gaffney would be the team’s biggest surprise. That’s a take-quake that in hindsight registers a 6.9/10 on the Richter Scale. Sure I was wrong, but that doesn’t mean his freshmen season was a failure.

An ankle injury during preseason stunted his learning curve during the non-conference schedule; a time where as a freshman point guard you can become acclimated to the step up in pace against oftentimes weaker competition. And after playing a combined 49 minutes in four games during the January gauntlet, it looked like his coming out party would have to be next year.

But then Hurley inserted him into the starting lineup on the road vs. Memphis, and UConn ended the season 8-3. Playing at least 19 minutes in each of the last 13 games, we got a glimpse of the point guard of the future; a steady ball-handler with the athleticism to rescue a broken play if necessary.

With Vital and Bouknight taking most of the shots, Gaffney seemed content with getting his teammates in the right position. Sure, his shooting numbers were paltry (33 percent from the field, 26 percent from three) but those came off 3.6 and 1.7 attempts, respectively, but that wasn’t his role this year, just like Shabazz’s role in 2011 was to allow Kemba to play off the ball.

With Vital gone next year and Polley still rehabbing, someone’s going to have to put the ball in the cup. Look for Gaffney to take a larger role doing that next year.

When asked about his seniors today, Hurley noted “the leadership of those two guys are major holes for us to fill, from a toughness and selflessness standpoint.” The good news is that heir apparents appear ready to take the reins and build off the base the two departing seniors established.

Temi Aiyegbusi

Yeah, I’m going to devote some space to Temi too— senior walk-ons deserve love too. Temi came *this close to cementing legendary status in Husky lore; a walk-on coming in amid dire straits and confusion, hitting a bucket to tie the game. He was thrust into a tough spot and still made the right decision. Seeing his distraught reaction to missing a good clean look showed how much he cared for the program and his teammates.

A walk-on that invests that much emotion to a team with so little individual reward deserves recognition.