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Dan Hurley looking for more from seniors, defense

Head coach Dan Hurley discussed that and more ahead of the Huskies’ next game against Butler.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

When UConn men’s basketball head coach received his “Captain Brutality” shirt as a gift, he said one of his superpowers was to “set the standard always a little bit higher than anyone could get to.”

At the time, Hurley’s squad was on a four-game winning streak and seemed to be doing alright despite being without star James Bouknight.

Now after losing back-to-back conference games to St. John’s and No. 11 Creighton, Hurley is once again looking for more from his players.

“If we want to be able to win with this group, our margin for error with this particular team right now is very thin,” Hurley said, with respect to the Huskies’ poor 2-point and free-throw shooting.

Senior leadership

More than a month ago, Hurley was calling on UConn’s (7-3, 4-3 Big East) seniors to carry this team through a set of games after its second COVID-19 pause. In some ways, they have answered that call. But Hurley shared in very direct terms that he’s expecting more from this group.

Senior Tyler Polley has shown flashes of being the scoring threat this team needs, especially with Bouknight sidelined. He had two inspiring performances in consecutive games against Marquette and Butler, averaging 21 points and earning Big East Player of the Week honors on Jan. 11. Since then, he has averaged just 6.3 points per game — including his third zero-point game of the season Saturday against Creighton.

“[Polley]’s got to get better and move without the ball,” Hurley said. “He’s got to use screens better. And he’s got to defend better because I think his you know his poor defensive play has affected his confidence at the offensive end.”

Hurley wants to see “all-conference level” play from forward Isaiah Whaley, who he said has been “okay” this season. Hurley’s expecting double-digit scoring and rebounding and “monster” defense.

The North Carolina native has been relatively reliable this season but hasn’t quite played up to his last six games of the 2019-20 season when he averaged 13.8 points per game. This season, he is averaging a respectable 9.2 points, 6.7 boards, and 2.4 blocks per game through 10 games, but is not quite at an all-conference level.

Center Josh Carlton started 81 out of 96 of his collegiate games up to this season but has lost that spot to freshman Adama Sanogo. Carlton has scored in double digits just once this season – 11 against DePaul on Dec. 30 – and had just two games with 10 or more rebounds. He has averaged just three points per game in his last five games and hasn’t played more than 15 minutes in any of them.

Defense

The Huskies allowed 70 or more points in just two of their first eight games, to then-No. 9 Creighton and CCSU in the season opener. Since then, they have allowed 74 in consecutive games, which is still good, but they need to tighten up on that side considering their offensive struggles.

“We’ve gotta be better defensively in the game, we have to get back to that identity,” Hurley said. “We have had two lackluster defensive efforts, the last two games. We have very little chance of winning in this league if we don’t defend.”

They are currently the No. 28 ranked defensive team in the country, according to KenPom. They are a top-30 team in both block percentage and assist percentage against.

UConn has shown it can lock down an opposing team’s best scorer, limiting St. John’s Julian Champagnie to 12 points and Marcus Zegarowski to 15 or less in each of its games against Creighton.

They have been burned by a secondary scorer in all three of their losses, though. Creighton’s Christian Bishop and Denzel Mahoney each scored 19-plus against them in UConn’s two losses to the Bluejays. St. John’s Posh Alexander got the Big East Player of the Week nod for his 18-point, six assist performance against UConn.

Shooting

Offensive inefficiency has stung UConn this season. The Huskies are the second-worst team in 2-point shooting (43.6%) in Big East play.

Even though they easily the best offensive rebounding team in the Big East, they haven’t been capitalizing on those extra opportunities. They had just 12 second-chance points against Creighton Saturday on 18 offensive rebounds. Only a third of their points came in the paint, despite three of their four leading-scorers on the night coming from forwards.

Hurley said the shot selection hasn’t been the issue, they just aren’t falling as they should be.