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UConn men’s basketball 2020-21 midseason roundtable

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The UConn Blog men’s basketball writers take a look back at how the Huskies have performed during this wild season.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

After a referee in UConn’s win over Butler tested positive for COVID-19, the Huskies once again went on pause and had games postponed for the third time this season. With yet another week-long gap between games, the UConn Blog men’s basketball writers chose to use this time for a “midseason” review, looking back at some of the best players and moments so far this season. Currently, UConn sits at 8-3 overall (5-3 in the Big East) and needs to play at least two more games to be eligible for this year’s NCAA tournament.

Assuming the Huskies can get those minimum two games in, they have a good case for an at-large bid. They currently sit at No. 30 in KenPom and No. 46 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. It’s also possible that star James Bouknight, who suffered an elbow injury against Marquette that required surgery, could come back in the next few weeks and bring Dan Hurley’s Huskies up to full strength.

Barring any setbacks, the Huskies are set to return to action Saturday, Feb. 6 against Seton Hall. Until then, here are some of our takeaways from the first chunk of the Huskies’ season for you to enjoy!


BEST MOMENT

Ryan Goodman: This is an easy one for me. Bouknight’s 40-burger against Creighton is definitely the best moment of the season thus far. While it would’ve been nice to get the win, it was the moment that truly solidified Bouknight amongst Husky greats. I haven’t seen anyone in a UConn uniform score that effortlessly since Kemba Walker. I’m not saying we all didn’t think he was the real deal to begin with, but scoring 40 points in the team’s first Big East conference game in seven years, as a Sophomore nonetheless, is downright ridiculous. Godspeed in your recovery from elbow surgery, James. We all miss you more than you know.

Mike Mavredakis: I can see Bouknight’s 40-point game as the highlight of the season, but since they lost that game it took some of the shine off for me. That being said, I think it has to be Tyler Polley’s second-half performance against Marquette on Jan. 5. They came back down 18 points, it was the start of the hot sauce movement and it showed Huskies fans that they can win without getting 20 from Bouknight. They needed that win in my opinion.

Patrick Martin: That entire second half of basketball versus Marquette was a thing of beauty. The Tyler Polley explosion. The defensive intensity. It was one of the more electric halves of basketball I’ve watched in years.

Luke Swanson: That Marquette game was pretty special, huh? Even beyond spawning Husky hot sauce mania, the idea that the Huskies could still thrive without one of the best players in college basketball was my main takeaway. Tyler Polley is Klay Thompson-levels of fun to watch when he gets hot, and he overshadowed one of Isaiah Whaley’s best performances of the year.


BEST WIN

Goodman: At Marquette. Down by 18 with 17 minutes to go in the game, with Bouknight severely hampered by the elbow injury he sustained late in the first half, UConn was staring down the barrel of a blowout loss to the Golden Eagles that would’ve been their second of the season. Tyler Polley was having none of it, however. He lifted the entire team up, placed them squarely on his enormous shoulders, and they rode him to a double-digit victory. Polley scored 23 points in the last 15 minutes of the game. If he hadn’t gone Super Saiyan in this one we would’ve lost by 10+ and I honestly think the outlook of our season would be a lot less positive at this point.

Mavredakis: Ryan is right, this is hands down the win of the season. You can make a case for the USC game as well, but the win over Marquette was UConn’s biggest statement in the first half. Their showing against Butler was their tightest, but Marquette elicited the most emotion and fan involvement yet. I just wish Ian Eagle had called the game so we could hear him yell “BANG” every time we look at the highlights from that day in 10 years.

Martin: Pantsing a Butler team that had won two straight after UConn had dropped two in a row. If the Huskies struggle or even lose to Butler, we’re looking at a long five or so weeks without Bouknight. But Tyrese Martin, Adama Sanogo, and RJ Cole showed they could carry the offensive load after a few tweaks to their offensive sets.

Luke: I’m on Patrick’s side here. Things could have gotten real ugly if UConn failed to get a good result against Butler. Instead, Tyrese Martin led the team to a great 12-point win over the Bulldogs and kept the Huskies’ season trajectory positive. Bonus points for being another very solid Sanogo performance.


BREAKOUT PLAYER

Goodman: This one was kind of close for me between Martin and Sanogo, but I’m going to give it to Martin. Sanogo has shown some flashes but I don’t think we can label him a breakout player since he’s only logging about 14 minutes and 6 points per night. Martin has been the main reason why we are still winning games without Bouk in the lineup, showing the ability to be the #1 offensive weapon in some games and proving that he can be a legitimate and consistent second scorer when our star returns. He was also leading the conference in rebounding for a hot second, which is mainly due to his insane instincts on the offensive glass paired with elite athleticism. One of my favorite things to do is just watch Martin during missed shots. His drive and nose for the ball are astounding. He really has done it all for this team.

Mavredakis: This is a tough one for me. I honestly don’t think there has been a breakout player for this team. If I were to pick one it would probably be Martin, but I don’t really consider his season to be a breakout. I just think people have underestimated him. Looking at his numbers from his time at URI, they are virtually the same as they are this year. His shooting has dramatically improved, but otherwise, Martin has just been playing his game. Last season for URI, he averaged 12.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game on 43.3% from the field and 32.1% from three. This year he is averaging 11.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game on 47.2% from the field and 45.5% from deep. Those are nearly identical, we just didn’t give him enough credit.

Luke: Despite lacking the gaudy numbers of Tyrese Martin and RJ Cole, freshman Adama Sanogo stands out whenever he’s on the floor. His footwork in the post is silky smooth and his huge frame helps him get position on defense, deliver punishing screens, and earn extra possessions through offensive rebounds. He’s an incredibly talented young player and I have a feeling that this season is just the surface of what he’ll become as a Husky.


DEFENSIVE M.V.P.

Goodman: It’s gotta be Whaley. His defensive versatility has been so valuable for us this season. Whaley’s length and quickness allow him to guard all five positions and his shot-blocking ability seems to have reached its peak during his senior year. Whaley is currently tied for the conference lead in blocks, with 2.8 per game. RJ Cole is another candidate here, but he’s been beaten at the point of attack a bit too many times to win this honor.

Martin: Every time I use a wrench now I think of Isaiah Whaley. This is the way. From fighting for scrap minutes his first two-and-a-half years to potentially playing himself into professional basketball money, it’s one of the more heartwarming stories UConn has had in years. He’s Hilton Armstrong for Gen-Z. To see someone like that become the force he is after what he had to endure is just plain awesome.