After a lackluster performance in a midweek loss to Providence, the UConn men’s basketball team put together one of their most impressive wins of the season with a 80-72 win over Xavier. Here are some takeaways from the Huskies’ win over the Musketeers.
Responding to the Call
Ryan Goodman: In our Mid-Season Roundtable article, I said that the Marquette win had been the best of the season thus far. This game definitely challenges for that title. UConn was 8-5 and had lost four of their last five games. Bouknight was still a no-go, and they were playing one of the top teams in the conference who were undoubtedly fresh, having played only one game in the past month. The odds were completely against the Huskies in this one. However, they responded better than I could have imagined. After going down 14-5 not even six minutes into the game, UConn was on the ropes and the game was already looking like it could get out of hand. From this point on, the Huskies went on a 14-3 run, taking the lead and never relinquishing it the rest of the way. Led by RJ Cole’s season-high 24 points and seven assists, this truly appeared to be UConn’s most complete offensive game of the season. Polley, Cole, and Whaley were knocking down shots consistently again, Tyrese Martin was embodying the aggressive rim-seeking guard he is, even Akok and Jackson were scoring timely buckets as well. UConn desperately needed a game like this to boost their confidence, which had been severely waning in recent weeks.
Major Lineup Changes
Goodman: Dan Hurley chose to take RJ Cole out of the starting lineup for the second game in a row. He responded by pouring in a season-high 24 points (7-14 FG, 5-7 3PT) and dishing out seven assists. The modified starting lineup - which consisted of Gaffney, Martin, Jackson, Whaley, and Sanogo - was actually outscored by the bench trio of Cole, Polley and Akok. I’m not sure if Dan Hurley was trying to send a message to R.J. or if he just wanted to switch things up to inject a bit more energy into this team, but either way, Cole stepped up in a major way and led the Huskies to a massive win. Also, his defensive pressure on Xavier lead guard Paul Scruggs (3-10 FG) was a major reason why the Musketeers struggled to get over the hurdle in the second half. It’ll be interesting to see what starting five Hurley goes with against Providence, but I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Cole come off the bench once more. This will obviously depend on if Bouknight is ready to go, though.
Dan Madigan: After coming back a little bit ahead of schedule from an Achilles injury, Akok Akok kept getting banged up and wasn’t able to consistently get back on the court. Against Xavier, the sophomore was finally healthy enough to play and made an immediate impact with seven points, one assist and one block in just 10 minutes. While this UConn team is certainly more dangerous with a healthy James Bouknight in the lineup, Akok’s impact on both ends can’t be overstated. When healthy, he’s one of the best shot blockers in the country and can guard any position on defense. Offensively, he’s a solid rebounder and shooter that can stretch the floor and open up opportunities for teammates. It may take him more time to be like his freshman year self, but a healthy Akok and the impending return of Bouknight could take this team to a whole different level as they head into March.