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Next Man Up: How UConn can stay afloat without James Bouknight

Upperclassmen RJ Cole, Tyrese Martin, Isaiah Whaley, and Tyler Polley will have to shoulder the load.

Connecticut v Butler Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

James Bouknight’s elbow surgery put UConn Twitter through the gamut of emotions last Wednesday. Between ‘he’s played his last game in a Husky uniform’ to ‘back in two weeks,’ there are conservative estimates that peg his return to come in roughly two to four weeks. For now, assume it keeps him out four weeks. In that span, there are seven games on the schedule within that time frame (pending COVID related cancellations and postponements), and UConn would probably need at least a few wins during that stretch to feel good about its NCAA prospects. In other words, the Hot Sauce Huskies will have to tread water until they get their star back.

It’s a tired sports cliché, but head coach Dan Hurley will have to resort to Next Man Upism. The good news is that “the Carpenter” has plenty of tools to work with. Tyler Polley is fresh off Big East Player of the Week honors, where he averaged over 21 points per game and shot an absurd 63% from three. Tyrese Martin leads the Big East in offensive rebounds per game. RJ Cole is settling into his role as a defensive disruptor and distributor that can knock down an open look. Isaiah Whaley has a sneaky efficient offensive skillset while sitting third in the Big East in blocks.

Those players will be the core four as UConn navigates the Big East waters without its potential lottery pick. Let’s look at what it could entail.

The best offense is a good (scoring) defense

The Huskies are tops in the Big East in scoring defense, and Hurley’s defensive scheme on that end shouldn’t change much. And as Akok Akok is eased back in, the glass cleaning and rim protection could potentially climb to an elite level. The hope is that the defense continues to create easy transition looks. But, the Huskies can’t just outlet to Bouknight now and watch him slither his way through two defenders for an absurd layup. Instead, The Fast Break will have to mirror more the classic UConn teams. Check out highlights of Ricky Moore, courtesy of the legendary tcf15.

Edmund Saunders outlets. Khalid El-Amin doesn’t even dribble, he hits a streaking Moore. Before Villanova even had its defense set, UConn was right down their throats. Now substitute Whaley, Cole, and Brendan Adams for those legends.

A fast break isn’t just one guard pushing the tempo. Advance the ball, fill a lane, and sprint. The less dribbling the better. It creates a frenzy; if a player knows they’re getting easy looks on a break, they’re going to be flying the next time there’s a blocked shot or rebound. Even a watered down version of those breaks will do.

Halfcourt offense - the major hurdle

Getting those transition buckets will be critical because halfcourt offense is where UConn will feel Bouknight’s absence the most. On the coaches show Friday, Hurley put the onus on lead guards Cole and Jalen Gaffney.

“We need them to break down defenders, draw help, and create three opportunities while at the same time feeding the post,” Hurley said.

Regarding Martin, Hurley believes Bouknight’s injury “gives us a chance to put the ball in his hands more where he can attack from the mid-post at the elbows.”

Hurley also stressed the importance of generating creative looks for Polley, who has rapidly become one of the Big Wast’s best shooters. We’ve already seen Polley run through screen after screen to get just a hair of separation, which is really all he needs at the moment. Plays like this will need to become a staple:

Polley hands off to Cole, who then receives a high ball screen from Carlton. Carlton then heads over to screen Polley, who comes off the pick perfectly for a wide open look. Cole did an excellent job of selling his drive before kicking to the Polley. Onions.

Cutting, screening, and crisp ball movement are so important now without that Bouknight safety valve. And don’t discount the frontcourt’s post ability. In the right matchup, Carlton, Whaley, and Sanogo all have shown you can dump it down to them. That inside-out game will be so important for Hurley to balance.

Intangibles, Lineups, and the Last Shot

When the chips are down and UConn is stuck in another rock fight like it was with DePaul, on-court leadership has to continue to come from that core four. Who takes the last shot? It will have to be matchup dependent. Get teams to switch on screens and hunt Martin with a smaller man on him. Or a pick-and-pop that has Polley guarded by a heavy-footed big slow to close out. Whatever the option, it needs to be a look early enough in the clock so the frontcourt has a chance for a tip-in or offensive board.

What about closing lineups? Thanks to the geniuses over at hoops-explorer.com, we’ve found the most efficient UConn offense this year.

The core four plus a veteran ball handler in Adams has been the most effective so far this year, excluding Bouknight. Substitute Carlton and Sanogo in for Whaley and the numbers don’t drop off substantially.

Make no mistake, watching Bouknight figure out he’s a top 15 player in the country has been a thrill. But UConn fans should sit back and enjoy this month-long iteration of the Huskies. Every time you turn on your TV, there will be intrigue attached to every game; who steps up this time? And while there maybe be some games that get away, it could be an important experience for this team to grow stronger from top to bottom as March approaches.