Tuesday marked the first official practice of the season for UConn men’s basketball, but head coach Dan Hurley didn’t see it as more than anything than a continuation of the hard work the team has been putting in.
“We’ve been practicing all summer, we just haven’t had the 40 hours a week but we went really hard this summer,” Hurley said. “We’ve been going hard since June.”
The ability to practice since June was a luxury Hurley didn’t have last season due to COVID-19. While the summer session and official practices are something every team in the country does, Hurley believes these practices — and the way he runs them with the rest of the Huskies’ staff — jumpstarts the development process and therefore gives UConn a leg up on the competition.
“The amount of effort that we put in all year round, effort to develop our players and to maximize every second that we spend with them, it gives us a greater advantage hopefully going into the year over other programs that don’t quite do as much as we do. ... we feel like we have a head start on our competition.”
While UConn figures to be one of the better programs in the Big East this season, Hurley and the Huskies have needed that developmental time to make up for the departure of James Bouknight, who is now playing for the Charlotte Hornets. Bouknight was UConn’s best scorer —and at times, the only consistent scoring option — all season, except when he was hurt. He averaged 18.7 points and his usage was over 30 percent of the Huskies’ possessions in his standout sophomore season.
Even with the emergence of RJ Cole as the team’s second scoring option towards the end of the season and the return of super seniors Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley, Hurley can’t rely on any of them to score in the same way he did on Bouknight. Instead, Hurley’s team in his fourth season in Storrs will have to resemble more closely to what he did so well towards the end of his tenure at Rhode Island — a balanced offensive team anchored by an elite defense and a deep roster with contributors from top to bottom.
So far, the depth is apparent. Hurley believes this team is full of contributors.
“I think this is like a really deep team. You feel like there’s 10 guys that are vying for anything from potentially a starting role to six to 10 off the bench,” Hurley said. “The competition here is fierce... I don’t know that anyone’s role is guaranteed beyond maybe a couple guys.”
It’s safe to say that Cole, Whaley, Polley, and sophomore Adama Sanogo should have similar roles to last season. As for everyone else that’s returned, they’re vying for a starting spot or some significant time off the bench, but have to deal with an uber-talented recruiting class that includes guards Rahsool Diggins, Corey Floyd, and Jordan Hawkins as well as big man Samson Johnson.
The return of Whaley and Polley combined with the incoming freshmen class (not to mention Floyd’s early enrollment), should give Hurley an opportunity to go nine or 10 players deep against weaker opponents and limit the talent drop off if any injuries arise.
But perhaps the most important piece of all for this squad is defense.
“We’ve got to be a top-15, top-10 team defensively in the country and we’ve got to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country,” Hurley said. “We feel like there’s more guys that could give us 15 or more on a night... we’ve got to replace a dynamic scorer and I don’t see that as being a problem because we return some of the guys who have got some talent.”
According to KenPom, UConn finished the season 29th overall in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, the second-best mark Hurley has ever posted as a head coach while ranking fourth nationally in offensive rebound percentage. The Huskies have the ability to improve those marks this season with the return of Whaley, one of the best defenders in the country, back for another year and adding a healthier Akok Akok back into the mix.
A balanced, deep scoring attack with elite defense may not always be the prettiest way to win games, but it should give UConn plenty of chances to win on any night and punch above their weight against more talented teams.