We’re now far enough away from the NCAA Tournament loss to Maryland where I can bring that up without causing too much distress, but the disappointing first-round loss still tempered the optimism of a UConn fanbase revitalized by a late-season run and a (theoretically) favorable draw in the bracket.
Gauging a program’s standing by the emotions of its ticket holders or internet commenters is normally a fool’s errand, although it’s somewhat warranted here, as one of the factors in the UConn rebuild is a sort of energy lacking during the doldrum seasons. Also, Dan Hurley and Dave Benedict don’t read my column, so I might as well talk to my audience.
Did the fanbase overrate or underrate UConn this year? Yes, both, often at the same time. The team had some fairly glaring flaws, which caused the eventual downfall in the first round. By any real measure, the Huskies were also one of the 25 best teams in the country this season. That’s a massive improvement in the span of just one season, and it seems to be something Hurley can build around rather than have it collapse with the departure of Bouknight, UConn’s best player.
Let’s start with the positives. Despite a truncated non-conference schedule, the Huskies were still able to get a signature win over eventual Elite Eight team (and criminally under-seeded) USC—a squad led by a top-3 NBA Draft pick in big man Evan Mobley — the sort of victory UConn hasn’t been able to grab in years. They reached the midseason top 25 polls for the first time in five years and held that spot for multiple weeks before an injury to James Bouknight sparked a losing streak. Despite having their best player out with injury for a few weeks, they still managed to finish third in an improving Big East conference. After all this, making the NCAA Tournament seems like more of a foregone conclusion, but hey, it’s been a while.
The upshot is that these seem to be signs of genuine progress, and not just an aberration caused by Bouknight’s star play. The late-season turnaround was caused almost as much by R.J. Cole understanding his strengths and weaknesses at the higher level of play, and Isaiah Whaley’s defensive prowess could be replaced by Adama Sanogo and a recovered Akok Akok. The team has returning strengths (passing, playmaking) and has enough retention to know what holes will need to be plugged next year. The incoming recruiting class is UConn’s strongest in five years, with the added perk that this time around it seems unlikely that two of the three 4-star players in the class will transfer after their freshman seasons.
Hopes for the future can’t carry an individual season, of course, and even with everything to be optimistic about, this team wasn’t strong enough for a deep NCAA Tournament run. The defense was quite good among the starting lineup, but on the offensive end several key weaknesses combined to create a fatal flaw. The team lacked reliable 3-point shooting, and the lack of perimeter gravity often killed the Huskies’ scoring efficiency. Even with Whaley developing an outside jumper, a inside-oriented frontcourt clogged the lanes, preventing Bouknight, one of the most talented scorers in the country, from finding enough lanes to the rim as consistently as hoped.
The undersized Cole’s weakness is finishing in traffic, and the spacing made it easier for defenses to double him on his drives. All that together leads to an offense that is far too reliant on pull-up jumpers off the dribble, and it showed in a 54-point output in the tournament against a solid but not excellent defense, shooting only 33.3 percent from inside the arc. The UConn offense didn’t even have to get worse, opponents just needed to force them to take more difficult shots, and good teams were easily able to do so.
This is not an inevitable problem, and there isn’t much of a reason to think we’ll see the same trends next season. Cole played much better down the stretch, for one thing, and Jalen Gaffney and Andre Jackson will assuredly be working on their jumpers to complement their passing ability. Jackson, in particular, could be a game-changer as a sophomore if the shot comes along, as his defensive ability and excellent court vision would allow him to slot into a variety of roles no matter the tempo. Incoming freshman Jordan Hawkins has a reputation for being a shooter, and a frontcourt rotation with more minutes for Akok, Richie Springs, and Samson Johnson makes the Huskies a lot more versatile.
I’m also writing this before any transfers are announced, which would help Hurley fill in the team’s gaps better than projecting any additional freshmen into the college game. UConn in the past few years has added extra scholarship players by reclassifying them up a season— a risky proposition that doesn’t always work, but also helped the team land Sanogo — but despite Hurley saying that he doesn’t envision the Huskies becoming a team of transfers, they’ve found success in the past by bringing in experienced players to match a particular need. With this team’s remaining needs so evident, and the exact scholarships remaining to fill those roles—three open spots for a floor-stretching guard, a wing with shooting ability, and a big man—UConn’s carpenter of a head coach should have a clear vision for next year’s roster.
At this trajectory, the rebuild isn’t complete. The program is on an upswing, and it’s clear that a first-round exit isn’t their ceiling. With an improving Big East and more interest from major recruits, the team is still getting better. A first-round exit hurts, but these seasons are about to start ending later and later.