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UConn men’s basketball position preview: Forwards

The Huskies frontcourt is a position of depth this season.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

In recent years, UConn hasn’t had both talent and depth at the forward position. The frontcourt has either been reliant on one or two high performers, or had a combination of multiple viable players without any one having a major impact on the game. This year, it seems like the Huskies have finally balanced the two, with high-level college producers and potential NBA talent matched by multiple bench replacements who have proven to be worthy of minutes.

The key returner among them is Isaiah Whaley, the reigning co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year. This award is nothing new to UConn, being won by a Husky six times in a seven-year span during the 2000s, and Whaley is looking to be the team’s first repeat winner since Hasheem Thabeet. Whaley has become perhaps the most well-rounded player on the team, but he’s first and foremost the team’s best defensive player. That’s due to a versatile skillset that allows him to guard multiple positions from a variety of locations on the floor, as well as being a shot-blocking threat in both help defense and post-ups. Whaley showed his best play in a neutral-court matchup with USC last year, where he held current NBA Rookie of the Year candidate Evan Mobley to only 4-10 shooting from the floor and generally commanded a skilled Trojans offense to bend to his will.

Whaley has also become more of a focal point on offense as well, of course, and while he’s unlikely to average 15 points a game (he scored eight points per contest last year), his outside jumper is consistent and his post play, while unspectacular, is steady. Due to the shots vacated by James Bouknight leaving for the NBA, it wouldn’t be surprising if Whaley attempted two or three more shots per game this upcoming season. He’s also quite a good passer, especially in the lane, and somewhat remarkably was tied for second on the team in total assists last season. Before Whaley in 2020-21, the last Husky big man to have more assists than turnovers in a season was Tyler Olander, a name that is hopefully an omen for championships to come.

Whaley will assuredly be in the Huskies’ starting lineup as long as he’s healthy, boding well for his role this season. While a guaranteed role for a player of his ability and experience can only be a good thing, he also won’t be required to have a good game for the Huskies to find success. That’s in large part due to the emergence of Adama Sanogo, whose strength and soft touch is a rare combination among big men of his age. Sanogo, the team’s lone true center, is not as versatile as Whaley but makes up for it by being very good at his strengths. He’s tough to back down and steal rebounds from, and on the offensive end has a quality array of post moves with good finishing skills either at the basket or pulling backwards.

The key to Sanogo’s progression will likely be keeping him out of foul trouble. While he started all but three games last season, he would frequently pick up two quick fouls in the first half, forcing Dan Hurley to go to his bench more often than he would’ve liked. Those freshman mistakes can be hammered out of a player as early as his sophomore season, but it’s one of the only things in the way of Sanogo getting more playing time.

Perhaps the second biggest factor in that equation is no fault of Sanogo’s, as Akok Akok is reportedly fully recovered from his Achilles injury that limited him to 29 total minutes last season. A standout as a freshman two years ago, Akok immediately became one of the great UConn shot-blockers, and his defensive production matched the best the AAC had to offer. What he’ll look like this season is anyone’s guess, but Hurley’s cautiousness with his recovery helped ensure he wasn’t rushing back and risking further injury.

Akok has some shooting range and can quickly get to the rim on a fast break, but his biggest impact is on the defensive end. This, in fact, may be the biggest factor in UConn’s overall success this year; the possibilities are endless if the defense doesn’t miss a beat when Whaley or Sanogo get some rest.

Tyler Polley is the final returning contributor from previous years, though the 6-foot-9 super senior can play an oversized wing at times. At this stage in his career, Polley is purely a 3-point specialist, though one that the team sorely needs without another reliable knockdown shooter from beyond the arc. He does have limitations and his minutes have gone down each of the past two seasons, but he’ll provide a valuable role again this season.

Richie Springs is also returning, a redshirt sophomore whose name is apt for his athletic ability. Springs is a good leaper and a smooth-looking jumper, though his true ability is difficult to gauge, as he’s only played 13 collegiate minutes to this point. He’ll probably be one of the best fifth or sixth frontcourt options in the nation, since he has fairly versatile skills, which is unusual for a deep bench player at this level. How much that means to the team will depend on a variety of factors.

The lone newcomer to the rotation is Samson Johnson, a tall, wiry Togolese big man who ranked on most sources as the Huskies’ best recruit in the incoming class. Johnson, a high school teammate of Sanogo, has a reputation for being a quality two-way player, a rim-runner on offense who excels on the fast break but capable in the halfcourt due to a surprising shooting range, and has a nose for the ball on defense in both rebounding and blocking shots.

His thin frame may mean he’ll need to bulk up in order to reach his potential in the always-physical Big East, but he also has an immense wingspan that he’ll be able to use to his advantage in multiple ways. Along with Akok, Johnson is one of the two UConn bigs who could surpass expectations this year and provide another dimension to the team.

During the Jim Calhoun era in which UConn was consistently one of the best teams in the country, the Huskies were known for a punishing frontcourt, leading the nation in blocks for a stretch of several consecutive years. This season, the Huskies appear to have the depth to bring back this important aspect of the program’s identity.