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Seniors Polley, Whaley and Carlton helped lead Huskies through COVID-19 struggles

UConn men’s basketball will host its Senior Day ceremony in its final home game against Georgetown Saturday.

(UConn Athletics)

Over the last four seasons, UConn men’s basketball has seen countless changes. The program has seen two different head coaches, two conferences, a season cut short and a season where they missed 10 games because of COVID-19.

Through that, though, there have been three mainstays – one out on the wing and two in the post. Tyler Polley, Isaiah Whaley and Josh Carlton have stayed in Storrs all four years.

Head coach Dan Hurley has praised them for their contribution to the culture he has helped build within the program this season. He has looked to them during the hardest portions of the Huskies’ season, after a three-week layoff due to a COVID-19 positive in December and after back-to-back losses in January without James Bouknight.

“Those guys have really changed the trajectory of the program the last three years,” Hurley said. “The fact that they wanted to stay, and they knew it was going to be hard, and they knew it wasn’t gonna be instant gratification because of how bad of shape things were. Their legacy is the shape that they will potentially leave the program in, if this is their last season.”

This group will potentially play its final game Saturday against Georgetown, at Gampel Pavilion at 12 p.m. Hurley has invited them all to come back if they’d like but said that decisions will be made after the season. All college athletes were given an extra year of eligibility to use by the NCAA if they choose to due to COVID-19.

Since it could be their last game, it’s only right to give them all a look back on their careers in Storrs.

Tyler Polley

In a team otherwise relatively devoid of shooting in Polley’s time at UConn, he was always a lockdown shooting presence out on the wing.

The son of an NFL linebacker, Polley was recruited to UConn out of Miramar, Florida. He got a shot at the rotation right away, starting his first game in college, but Polley’s freshman year went as one could expect – he played just 13 minutes and 2.7 points per game in 32 games.

In his sophomore season, his only full season in the starting lineup, he took a major step forward. His production soared in UConn’s first year under Hurley, averaging 8.4 points and 2.3 rebounds while shooting 38% from 3-point range.

He was on track to beat those numbers last year but lost the second half of his season due to an ACL and meniscus tear in his left knee. Just before his injury Polley put on his best performance of the 2019 season, a 19-points, 11-rebound night against Tulane.

The senior spent the next several months rehabbing from his injury but was ready to go on day one of the 2020-21 season. In his first game back, the 6-7 sharpshooter put up 14 points and seven rebounds against CCSU. He’s had an up-and-down season since, sometimes popping up as a double-digit scorer off the bench or registering just a handful of shots with limited success.

Polley has been a player that can impact the game on any given night but doesn’t always show up. There are games like his 23-point performance against Marquette the night Bouknight got hurt and the four games he’s put up zero points on limited shots. That’s been his career in Storrs.

“It’s kind of surreal, playing my last game at Gampel,” Polley said. “The year just went by so fast. Coming in as a freshman and now I’m a senior. I think it’s surreal, but I’m ready for it.”

Overall, he has averaged 6.6 points and two rebounds per game while shooting 41% from 3-point range in college.

Josh Carlton

The Josh Carlton experience has been akin to Polley’s in some ways. He was a two-year starter in 2018 and 2019, starting 66 straight games at one point. Then he lost his spot in the lineup to freshman Adama Sanogo this year.

Even with the lost playing time, Hurley said he hasn’t made it about himself and has handled it well. In that time, he has become a mentor for Sanogo, who said Carlton was almost like a brother to the freshman after UConn’s win over Seton Hall.

“He’s battled his tail off every single day,” Hurley said. “He has fought and pushed [Sanogo] and pushed himself.”

Carlton has struggled on occasion in his time in Storrs, especially last season, but he has also been key for the Huskies in his time here. He was the most reliable presence in an otherwise thin frontcourt for much of his career.

In his best collegiate season, 2018-19, Carlton was named The American’s most improved player. He averaged 9.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 22 minutes per game that year.

Even with all of the time he’s spent at UConn, Carlton said his favorite memory is yet to come.

“My favorite memory hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “I think when our name gets called on Selection Sunday, that will be my favorite moment.”

In 111 total games for UConn so far, Carlton has averaged 6.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. He has started 82 of those games and shot 53.8% from the floor.

Isaiah Whaley

Unlike Carlton and Polley, most of Whaley’s success and impact has come late in his UConn career. The 6-foot-9 forward wasn’t able to crack the three points per game threshold in either of his first two seasons but burst onto the scene at the tail end of last year.

In his final six games last season, Whaley averaged 13.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks for a surging UConn team. The season was cut short before the conference tournament due to COVID-19, but Whaley played his way into a starting role for this season.

“Even being able to play this year is a blessing because we were all kind of scared,” Whaley said. “We didn’t even really know if we were going to have a season, so even being in the position to have a senior night is a blessing.”

While his offense hasn’t been as steady in UConn’s return to the Big East, his defense has been stellar. He has recorded a block in all but one game this season and has put up three or more blocks in nine of his 19 games played.

He has averaged 7.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game this season as the driving force behind UConn’s No. 24 ranked defense, according to KenPom. That’s wildly impressive for a player that barely cracked the rotation his first two seasons.

Other notes:

  • UConn announced that Hurley and the school have agreed to a two-year contract extension, keeping him in Storrs through 2027.
  • The school also announced that junior Brendan Adams will be graduating a year early with a degree in economics. It is unclear if he will return for his senior season at this time.