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UConn Men’s Basketball: Takeaways from Dan Hurley’s third season at the helm

The Huskies had their ups and downs this season but achieved success with a third-place Big East finish and return to the NCAA tournament.

Maryland v UConn Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Even with all of the obstacles the program faced with multiple COVID-related pauses, Dan Hurley still managed to lead the Huskies to a 15-8 record and an appearance in the NCAA tournament in his third year as UConn’s head coach. With the Huskies’ 2020-21 season officially in the rearview mirror, The UConn Blog’s men’s basketball writers take a look back at the highs and lows of UConn’s season.

This team needs to play up-tempo

Mike Mavredakis: First, fast basketball is more interesting. Second, UConn plays better when it isn’t settling for bad shots out of the halfcourt set. The Huskies made their run late in the season in part because they were playing with better energy. They were moving without the ball, getting each other involved and striking when an opportunity presented itself.

Once they moved back to a slower offensive gameplan against Creighton and Maryland, their season was over. Of course, this depends on having multiple viable shooters who can space out the defense and get points on the board quickly. Having Rahsool Diggins and a couple of shooters like Jordan Hawkins and Samson Johnson next should help give UConn the space it needs.

Ryan Goodman: I agree with Mike here. This was particularly evident in the Georgetown game when UConn blew the brakes off the Hoyas. In this game, UConn had its second-highest pace according to KenPom, behind only the CCSU game.

In UConn’s loss against Maryland, they played at their lowest all year. Credit to the Terrapin’s defense, as they are a team who likes to slow the game down and force others to execute in the halfcourt, which UConn had no answer for. Throughout the season, though, and over the past few years, UConn has been a team that’s thrived off of high energy - creating turnovers on defense and turning it into quick offense - which wasn’t tapped into enough this year. It sort of felt like UConn had an incomplete identity.

Patrick Martin: While I’d like to see more tempo, it could be more of a pipe dream next year. Assuming Bouknight heads to the NBA, this is Adama Sanogo’s team next year and a traditional back-to-the-basket big is not necessarily the poster child of a fast break team. Offseason talk about playing at a high tempo is coach speak 101, but the 2021-2022 Huskies may actually benefit from slowing things down and building a halfcourt offense around Sanogo.

Defense may be the Huskies’ calling card

Dan Madigan: UConn’s defense was really good for basically the entire season. There were some lapses, especially during the Maryland game, but this team’s defense was its hallmark and kept the Huskies in contention even when the offense really struggled.

UConn’s defense is currently 29th in efficiency per KenPom, exactly 100 spots higher than it was in Hurley’s first season, an impressive feat considering this year’s core had a number of players from that first team. Hurley’s ability to teach and execute an elite defense year in and year out should pay dividends in future NCAA Tournaments.

In particular, RJ Cole’s performance in the first Creighton game against Marcus Zegarowski was impressive, as was Isaiah Whaley’s performance basically all season. While losing Whaley is a big blow, there’s no reason a fully healthy Akok Akok can’t do something similar next season, and incoming freshman Samson Johnson should help defensively from day one.

Watch out for Jalen Gaffney

Mavredakis: Gaffney has been one of the more intriguing players on this UConn team. After a promising freshman year, he largely lurked in the shadow of R.J. Cole and James Bouknight this season. On some nights, though, he would score in double digits seemingly out of nowhere, including a season-high 20 points against Seton Hall in February. Since Gaffney hasn’t really shown the distribution expected out of a true point guard, I am beginning to think he may fit in as a combo guard next season, with Diggins at the point. One of Cole’s best shot-types this year has been the catch-and-shoot three-ball, so he could really prosper as an off-ball scoring threat a la Tyler Polley but a touch more consistent. Gaffney could be the go-to scoring weapon off the bench, should Polley decide not to return.

Madigan: As one of the first Jalen Gaffney stockholders on the entire internet, it was great to see him come into his own as the season wound down. He’s a little undersized, but still holds his own defensively, attacks the rim on offense, and is a solid spot-up 3-point shooter. I’m not sure if he will ever be ever to carry this offense for extended stretches, but he’s already an extremely capable bench piece and should be a major backcourt asset alongside Martin, Cole, and Diggins next year.

Don’t forget about Akok Akok

Madigan: Akok played sparingly this year as he worked his way back from an Achilles injury he suffered during the 2019-20 season. He played just seven games this season and scored nine points — seven of which came in an absolutely electric 10 minutes against Xavier in mid-February.

With a full offseason to refine his game instead of having to rehab, Akok should be able to work his way back into next year’s starting lineup, adding some shooting help and elite shot-blocking back to the rotation. His return could be more impactful than any freshman or transfer Hurley brings in for next season.

Aman: Hopping into just to add:

Pulse check: Three years in, how are you feeling about Hurley and the Huskies?

Mavredakis: The program is on the right track, but I’m interested to see how it responds without having James Bouknight next season — who will be in the NBA in all likelihood. A fully healthy Akok Akok will be insanely fun as well. Things are looking up.

Martin: The sting of Saturday aside, the trajectory is still to the moon. People forget how immensely talented Akok Akok is, and the impact he’ll have on the defensive end. Adding him back to a team that led the conference in blocks will have fans reminiscing of those late 2000 teams that simply erased shots.

From a ‘recruiting standpoint, Hurley is off to a great start for 2022 with Corey Floyd Jr. There’s also a natural order to the roster, with successors at every spot. Diggins and Hawkins won’t have too much of an offensive burden because of Jackson, Martin, Cole, and Gaffney ahead of them. They can come into their own at their pace.

Ryan Goodman: Dan Hurley has improved the team dramatically each year here and he finally got the huskies in the NCAA tournament after a five-year drought. Yes, the loss was very disappointing, and frankly, an anomaly of sorts.

Per Basketball Reference, there have been 381 games since 2011 with a team putting up 65+ shots and holding their opponent to < 45 shots. Those teams were 375-6 (0.986) until UConn’s game against Maryland added another one to the loss column. UConn also had 17 offensive rebounds in the first half and only scored 22 total points. Again, it just came down to the Huskies not converting enough from short distance, an Achilles heel of this team the whole year, and it eventually cost them the season.

This year’s team had considerable talent and finished first in the Big East in points allowed per game and blocks. The loss will surely leave a sour taste in the mouth of Husky fans, and more importantly, the team, but The Carpenter is clearly building something in Storrs. It will be exciting to get the fans back in the stands next season (hopefully).

Madigan: The tournament loss stings, but overall, I feel pretty good about where the program is heading. The offense was anemic at times, but the Huskies looked better on both sides of the ball this year than any time other since maybe the 2016 tournament team. The young talent in Sanogo, Gaffney, Akok, and Andre Jackson is exciting and should be able to make big leaps in terms of talent just like upperclassmen such as Whaley and Carlton did. Bouknight leaving makes next year a lot more interesting, but I think there’s enough talent returning (and coming in from the freshmen class) to stick in the Top 25 for most of the season and return to the tournament.