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

Who spread their wings, who flopped, and what the outlook is for 2020-21

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Even disregarding the various external factors that have had an effect on UConn’s season, a ton has changed since we last examined the Huskies’ position groups, and no area has undergone more change than the Huskies’ frontcourt.

After injuries, emergences and disappointments, here is how the Huskies’ frontcourt performed in 2019, and how it stands going into 2020:

Tyler Polley

Before his season-ending injury, Polley proved to UConn that he is the kind of player that all 350 Division I teams can use: a tall knockdown shooter who can create off the dribble.

Although playing just half the season before a brutal leg injury, Polley has the second-highest box plus-minus (BPM) on the team only behind Christian Vital, shooting 40.5 percent from beyond the arc, averaging 15.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per 40 minutes.

And now for the really good news: Per Dan Hurley, Polley should be good to go for the start of the 2020-21 season.

That means more of the man who established himself quickly as the go-to player from the 3-point line early on in the season, going on some freakish hot streaks in non-conference play: 9-23 from three in the St. Joe’s, Florida, Buffalo and Xavier games, then a blistering 14-for-27 in the five-game stretch from Iona to New Hampshire.

Polley’s athleticism and height make him an ideal spot-up 3-point shooter, and the good news is he’s not a liability on defense either — The Huskies perform better on defense with him on the floor than off per Hoop Explorer. This should slot him directly in the starting lineup in 2020, and he should have an even bigger share of the ball when UConn is on offense.

Josh Carlton

I’ll admit, I was disappointed with how performed in 2019-2020. I wasn’t super high on him like some people in the UConn fanbase, but I thought that a full offseason in Hurley’s system would help him adjust on defense, and he could operate as an above-average rim runner.

I was wrong, it’s been known to happen. Carlton’s first month or so of the season was alright, a bit like his 2018 campaign. He feasted on non-conference teams, using his height and size to his advantage: 18 points, eight rebounds and two blocks against Sacred Heart, 13/8/1 against Florida and 12/10/4 against Buffalo, but faltered as conference play came around.

His play fell off a cliff, and with it went his minutes, but he had some real stinkers before his playing time went down. Three-for-10 shooting against Wichita State in 38 minutes, 3-9 in 27 minutes against Memphis. His touch around the rim was poor, to say the least, but 56.7 percent is a solid field goal percentage for a modern big man, but not a great field goal percentage for layups. Add in the rest of his shots and Carlton hit barely half of his field goals, not numbers you want out of a 6-foot-11 big.

Going into 2020, you’ll likely see Carlton coming off the bench to bully teams’ backup bigs, a strategy that could pay dividends for UConn down the line.

Akok Akok

On the flip side, before his devastating injury in the last month of the season, Akok was proving to be exactly the type of modern big man that UConn needs for the future. He was the most prolific shot-blocker since Amida Brimah, blocking near 10 percent of all shots attempted with him on the floor.

He scared the hell out of other teams too — even formidable foes like Villanova were intimidated by his shot-blocking presence, shooting just 4-13 at the rim in their Jan. 18 matchup.

His offensive game needs a little bit of fine-tuning, the Huskies clearly want him to be a threat from three at some point, but he shot sub-30 percent from there this year. His touch around the rim has been good, and if the Huskies can work outwards from there it’s a start. This should put Akok in line to return to reprise his position in the starting lineup whenever he returns from injury. Hurley says that there’s no timeline on that, but Akok is hoping for a return by the start of Big East conference play.

Sid Wilson

Oh, what could have been. Wilson had some great moments in the 2019-2020 season, but also some boneheaded ones. Wilson was suspended not once, but twice for violations of team rules in the 2019-20 season, and it’s still unclear whether he’ll be on the team in 2021.

But when he was playing, he definitely had an effect on the game. Wilson often electrified the Gampel crowd with huge blocks and rare offensive breakouts, becoming a sort-of crowd favorite before his latest exit from the team. His status going into 2020-21 is uncertain — in his latest conference call with the media, Hurley left it up in the air — but if he does return to the squad next season, he’ll have to battle with newcomer bigs Javonte Brown-Ferguson and Richie Springs for playing time, along with freshman wing Andre Jackson.

Isaiah Whaley

Last but certainly not least, Whaley became the face of UConn’s late-season resurgence, even under the least likely of circumstances. Whaley didn’t exactly start off the 2019-20 season on fire. He could barely get on the floor in non-conference play, and didn’t do very much with his 12 minutes per game, shooting a dreadful 41.2 percent from the floor

After Polley and Akok’s heartbreaking season-ending injuries, Whaley seized the majority of their minutes and the hearts of many UConn fans.

Since Akok’s injury on February 16, Whaley averaged 12.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and three blocks per game, resulting in some mega individual games to go along with it. His 18-point, 14-rebound effort against Temple ended in a loss for the Huskies, but his high effort soon led to wins, leading UConn to back-to-back wins against UCF and East Carolina with 18-and-16-point performances. After supplanting Josh Carlton in the starting lineup, it seems unlikely that he will give up that role going into 2020.