As the 2021-22 college basketball season rolls around, UConn is set to get started on year two in the new Big East and begin arguably the most anticipated season yet under head coach Dan Hurley.
With a deep and talented roster that is expected to contend for the program’s first Big East title in over a decade and fans allowed back into buildings for the first time since before COVID-19, this season should be more exciting — and more importantly, normal — than last year. And with the Huskies set to take on CCSU in their season opener on Nov. 9, let’s take a look at the top storylines surrounding the team heading into this season.
After RJ Cole was injured in the final minutes of the Big East Tournament semifinals against Creighton, the injury unofficially marked the beginning of the end of UConn’s 2020-21 season.
After the loss to the Bluejays, the Huskies followed it up with a lackluster performance in the NCAA Tournament with a loss to Maryland. Since then, that stretch — the final 45:07 of last season — has been Dan Hurley’s mantra for this coming year.
While this team will look different than last year’s in a few ways, Hurley hopes that keeping the memory of how last season ended in the back of returning players’ heads will inspire them to have a much different result this season.
Who replaces James Bouknight?
It won’t be easy for uconn to replace Bouknight, the team’s leading scorer last season and a lottery pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Instead of relying just one player to handle the scoring load like UConn did so often last season, the Huskies will likely need to have a more balanced attack, replacing Bouknight’s production with multiple players.
RJ Cole should be in the mix to lead UConn offensively after averaging 12.2 points per game last season and was one of the most prolific scorers in the country in his first two collegiate seasons at Howard.
Outside of Cole, the second or third scorer on this year’s team is up for grabs, but Tyrese Martin (10.3 points per game last year) may be the top candidate. After that, UConn will likely need one or more of Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley, Jalen Gaffney or Adama Sanogo to step up offensively, or maybe Akok Akok and the highly touted freshmen rise to the occasion.
Whaley, Polley back for one last ride
Even with how last season ended, the return of graduate students Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley was far from a definite. But Hurley left the door open for the two to return, and both took advantage, giving UConn the luxury of having incredible depth and experience for the first time in the Hurley era.
Polley was a streaky shooter last season, but carried the Huskies for stretches during Bouknight’s elbow injury and still finished the year shooting a respectable 35.5 percent from deep. At 6-foot-9, he’s a versatile defender that can guard almost any position and is the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year — a role he will likely reprise again this season.
Whaley returns to once again anchor UConn’s defense after winning Big East Defensive Player of the Year last season. As one of the best shot-blockers and most versatile defenders in the country, he should be a major reason why the Huskies will be one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
A formerly one-dimensional player, Whaley has developed his offensive game significantly — he’s an excellent high post passer and can now stretch the floor with midrange jumpers and the occasional 3-pointer after shooting 34.8 percent from three last year.
Akok Akok’s “return”
Even though Akok Akok technically came back last season from a significant Achilles injury, the redshirt junior played sparingly as Hurley took the long road to his recovery to ensure he healed properly, playing just about 30 minutes. Despite seeing action in seven games last year, he still made an impact in one of them, scoring seven points in just 10 min to help UConn take down Xavier on Feb. 13.
When Akok is healthy, he’s a rangy scorer who can keep defenders honest by hitting threes, getting to the rack and finishing lobs. Defensively, he’s an elite shot blocker and rebounder who could either spell Whaley for significant stretches or play alongside him to suffocate teams entirely. If Akok is fully healthy, which he is expected to be, he could be the key to helping UConn become one of the best teams in the country this season.
Talented freshman class
With UConn back in the Big East and trending in the right direction under Hurley, the Huskies landed one of their best recruiting classes in recent memory. The original class of guards Rahsool Diggins and Jordan Hawkins and big man Samson Johnson was already a top 15-20 recruiting class on most sites, but Corey Floyd reclassified late in the summer vaulted and UConn into the top 10.
While Diggins has been banged up this offseason, he figures to provide some solid bench depth at a minimum this season, while Hawkins seems to be pressing for more playing time due to his ability as a shooter. Johnson finished his high school career as the highest ranked player in the Huskies’ class, and should contribute immediately on defense and could carve out a niche on the other end if he can consistently stretch the floor.
Corey Floyd arrives early
Floyd reclassified this summer to join the Huskies a year ahead of schedule, further fortifying what was already one of the best recruiting classes in the country. He joins a crowded backcourt with Cole, Gaffney, Martin and fellow freshman Rahsool Diggins, but is talented enough to find a spot in the rotation despite being one of the youngest players on the roster.
Will Floyd follow the Hurley process of reclassifying to come to UConn and then redshirting like Richie Springs and others have done, or will Hurley use all the guards he has at his disposal to ratchet up on ball defensive pressure and try to score more in transition? That projects to be an important decision for the coaching staff early this season.