This year, the No.24 UConn men’s basketball team (No. 21 KenPom) is trotting out arguably its most talented frontcourt since Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien patrolled the paint in 2009. But in order for Adama Sanogo and company to carve out their post presence, UConn’s backcourt has to keep opposing defenses honest.
A little over 10 years ago, Tyler Olander had the first baskets against both Kentucky and Butler in the 2011 Final Four. Yes, that’s right — on a roster with three future NBA rotation guards, facing John Calipari and Brad Stevens, Jim Calhoun opted for drawn-up post plays to ..a future minor league baseball player. For as bizarre that decision seemed at the time, it randomly stuck in my brain because it did force those defenses to respect the post. It was a reminder that even if you have a transcendent backcourt; successful teams need inside-out balance in March.
It’s year four under head coach Dan Hurley. James Bouknight — UConn’s first lottery pick since 2012 — is gone, but Hurley returns one of the oldest backcourts in the Big East, while bringing in another crop of talented freshman. Last year’s offensive identity of: ‘Bouk and boards’ will switch to more low block sets, but the bigs need proper spacing to operate. The same concept applies to the defensive side of the ball. If UConn’s backcourt can’t apply the pressure Hurley wants, UConn’s potentially elite rim protection becomes unraveled and foul prone. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how UConn’s backcourt could fare this year.
RJ Cole, Graduate Student (12.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists per game, 38.7 FG%, 38.6 3-point%)
It’s no coincidence that for 45:07, UConn’s rallying cry this offseason, the 6-foot-1 point guard was either concussed or limited from concussion recovery. UConn scored just three points in the final five minutes of the loss to Creighton and tallied just 0.93 points per possession against Maryland. Prior to getting (literally) knocked out against Creighton in the Big East tournament semifinals, he was the straw that stirred UConn’s drink as the team rounded into late-season form last year. Cole scored in double figures in 13 of the last 14 games, finally acclimating to the Big East tempo after the Howard transfer sat out 2019.
Cole finished second in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio, but with Bouknight in the NBA, there’s a lot of production to be replaced, and he seems to be ready to fill in Bouk’s shoes.
“That’s what you play in these moments for, why you come to these types of schools,” He told Big East’s John Fanta earlier this week. “ When the game’s on the line with two minutes left, I want the ball in my hands.”
Check out a season preview for @UConnMBB! Head coach Dan Hurley, RJ Cole, Tyrese Martin, Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley all sit down with @John_Fanta to give their outlook on the upcoming season. #ThisIsUConn x #BIGEASThoops pic.twitter.com/a6ZokyogPM— #BIGEASThoops (@BIGEASTMBB) November 2, 2021
Beyond the box score, Cole wants to continue to evolve into the team’s quarterback.
“I’m trying to light a fire under my teammates. I used to be more of an example guy, but this year I have to be more vocal. I’ve definitely stepped out of my shell,” Cole told Blue Ribbon.
Tyrese Martin, Senior (10.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 44.0 FG%)
If Cole is the quarterback, the 6-foot-6 Martin is the slot receiver that picks up crucial third downs. He’s exactly what UConn needs next to Cole; a physical, bigger guard that can attack the rim, keep defenses honest with a serviceable outside shot, and crash the glass like a demon. Martin led UConn in rebounds and paced the Big East in offensive rebounds per game (three). If matchups and hot hands dictate it, Martin can go and get you 20 points. He led UConn in scoring four times, but went 1-10 from the field vs. Maryland, many of those seemingly easy looks at the rim.
Hurley needs Martin to be his Steady Eddie.
“Up until that late-season swoon and shooting struggles, Tyrese was having a great year for us — at least from a statistical standpoint,” Hurley said in an interview with CT Insider. “We need that consistency from Tyrese all the way through the year.”
Jalen Gaffney, Junior (6.1 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 1.5 apg, 41.0 FG%)
Whether because he came to Storrs with Bouknight, or the hyperbole from an AAU coach, the 6-foot-3 Gaffney has always played with the burden of expectations on becoming the next great UConn guard. The development hasn’t always been linear, but the reality is, while playing the same number of minutes, Gaffney doubled his scoring and lifted all of his shooting percentages into respectable numbers from freshman to sophomore year.
Look for the light to finally stay on in year three. Gaffney is a different player when he’s putting pressure on defenses by attacking downhill off the dribble. Hurley has seen a “different” Jalen this offseason, and Gaffney echoes his head coach.
“I took it upon myself to get better. I have a role to fill. It’s about being aggressive at all times, whether trying to find my shot or getting into the lane to kick it out,” Gaffney told Blue Ribbon Magazine.
Consistent aggression and an improved outside shot could lead Hurley to deploy more dual point guard lineups. But even if he’s running the second unit, Gaffney’s ability to dictate the game’s tempo gives Hurley another weapon to utilize off the bench.
Andre Jackson, Sophomore (2.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.6 apg)
Has UConn ever had a player like Andre Jackson? Has college basketball? Rudy Gay had bunnies, but could he lead a fast break after pulling down an offensive rebound? Ben Simmons has vision and is 6-foot-10, but can he do this? Those two comparisons are ridiculous, sure, but Jackson, the 6-foot-6 sophomore out of Albany, is predicted by many a national pundit to stage a coming out party this year. Hampered by a injuries and freshman tenancies last year, fans nonetheless saw glimpses of a hyper athletic, point forward defensive disruptor.
Offense is all about pace and space in the modern era, and while Jackson has the former in spades, the latter is still called into question after shooting 2-17 from three last year. But UConn doesn’t need Jackson to transform into Steph Curry; all he needs is defenses to respect his outside shot enough to let the rest of his absurd talents take over.
While his offensive repertoire may be incomplete, Jackson is already a plus on-ball defender that can become elite with better off-ball awareness and positioning. His size and switchability with Tyrese Martin mean Hurley can trot out a monster-sized backcourt that can suffocate guards.
After dazzling on both ends in last week’s open practice, Hurley expanded on how Jackson can be an impact player.
“That’s a template for the way Andre needs to go about playing. He was just so active and he got down-hill with the drive. That version of Andre could have a really big impact,” Hurley told the Journal Inquirer.
It’s not just his straight-line athleticism in transition that makes Jackson so unique. It’s his playmaking; his ability to set up teammates for easy looks while attacking downhill.
If rumors of an improved outside shot — he connected on two threes in the open scrimmage — are true, it will be hard to keep Jackson in Storrs another year, let alone the starting lineup.
Jordan Hawkins, Freshman
Forget James Bouknight comparisons. Hurley took expectations a step further and even said Hawkins has “wall potential.” The 6-foot-4 shooting guard out of famed DeMatha Catholic — the high school powerhouse that’s produced Victor Oladipo, Markelle Fultz, and Josh Carlton — was ranked No. 48 by Rivals, and brings an offensive skillset that could be the missing piece of the puzzle for UConn this year. Shotmaking and floor-stretching will be at a premium this year, so reports of Hawkins’ advanced footwork and smooth outside stroke should be music to fans’ ears.
Freshman expectations should be tempered, of course. Look for Hurley to sharpen up Hawkins’ defensive intensity in the same way he brought Bouknight along. If summer practice videos are to be judged, Hawkins’ offensive package could mean starters minutes at the jump, or instant offense off the bench as he gets his college ball sea legs. If neither work out, put a bat in his hands; UConn baseball has a Reggie Crawford-sized hole that needs filling.
Rahsool Diggins, Freshman
It’s very easy to look at all of UConn’s depth and assume the 6-foot-2 point guard won’t see much time this year. But that would be playing right into Agent Sool’s hands, who oozes underdog swagger that’s inherent in Philadelphia guards. Diggins battled a bruised knee during preseason, but productive on both ends of the floor in the Huskies’ open scrimmage. The No. 58 recruit has all the makings of a prototypical Hurley point guard: tough and fiery with playmaking chops to match.
Corey Floyd Jr, Freshman
Floyd committed to UConn back in January, the first domino in the 2022 class that eventually touted hometown prizes Donovan Clingan and Alex Karaban. Fast forward to August, fresh off an outstanding Peach Jam performance, Floyd made headlines after deciding to reclassify to the 2021 class and enroll early at UConn. The 6-foot-4 combo guard from New Jersey is only 17, but possesses the physicality and poise of an upperclassmen, to the point where redshirting him may not even be an option. With another weapon that can get into the paint and make momentum-changing plays, Hurley suddenly has a minutes conundrum in the backcourt.