We’re reaching the tail end of February, and with the beginning of March comes the coveted beginning of March Madness. It’s almost a staple that UConn basketball makes an appearance in the tournament, but with a 14-12 record and no quality wins to bolster their resume, an at-large bid is far out of the question.
Even though the team has won seven of their last eight games, including some impressive comebacks against Memphis and Temple, a conference tournament win seems unlikely, as the Huskies would have to overcome No. 15 Cincinnati and No. 17 SMU, which is not expected to happen, but not impossible.
Nevertheless, with the season winding down, the time for reflection is starting. How does one assess this season from UConn? What is next year’s roster going to look like? Are there any positives to draw?
It’s hard to look at this season in a favorable light, and it’s tricky to say that injuries were a good thing. But I would argue that this season HAD to happen.
Just to clarify, I’m not advocating for players to get hurt, nor am I saying I’m relieved that three players had their season cut short. But the mentality built from a team that was expecting so much of themselves, only to struggle mightily, coupled with the emergence of some key players that may not have otherwise gotten the chance to shine, actually make this season more necessary than if it didn’t happen.
You may or may not recall the freshman class calling themselves the “Top 5” way back in July. That was just a microcosm of the excitement flowing through the team in the preseason, and then the ranking came out: preseason No. 18. That’s enough to get any team excited.
But then they lost to Wagner by nine, dropping a home opener at Gampel for the first time since it was built in 1990, and the first loss to open the season in 18 years. Then they lost to Northeastern. Then they barely scraped out a road victory against LMU, where Alterique Gilbert got hurt, and never returned.
But then Terry Larrier fell. And UConn kept losing. And all of a sudden, a team whose expectations for themselves were so high suddenly fell back down to earth in stunning fashion. It’s hard to say where the team would be now if those injuries didn’t occur, but it’s not like having a team at full health helped the Huskies out all too much to start the season anyway. Like I had feared, the cohesiveness of players who, for the most part, hadn’t played together much, was too big of a factor to overcome.
They probably would have figured it out eventually. However, they wouldn’t have had to pass the character test they’ve been put through this whole season, not with a full roster. The “it aint over till it’s over” mentality is crucial for any young team, and especially for a UConn program that hasn’t been considered dominant since the late 1990s and early 2000s. The struggle of falling so hard and having to work five times as hard to prove yourself helps a team learn not only what they’re capable of, but it gifts them with the mentality that hard work can achieve anything. Had UConn played a season fully healthy, the critics would surely be dropping the “Is UConn really all that talented?” takes every week. Now, there’s really no denying it.
In addition to just overcoming adversity, it builds the character of the individuals, most importantly the ones that will be running the show once the seniors leave. Hopefully Jalen Adams doesn’t leave after this season, which I don’t see happening barring a deep NIT run, but he’ll clearly be leading the point in a deep class of point guards, which always bodes well for UConn.
One of the most pleasing surprises to emerge from this season is Christian Vital. He has solidified himself as one of the gutsiest and energetic players on the court, and the amount of playing time he has gotten would have never happened if Larrier and Gilbert were still healthy. He’s averaging 10.3 points per game in conference play and shooting 43 percent from the field. The experience he’s gained is invaluable, as both he and head coach Kevin Ollie have said on multiple occasions.
With two coveted guards already committed to UConn for next year, Vital is the prime candidate to share his wisdom; and especially if Adams leaves (if not at the end of this year, then certainly after his junior year), Vital is going to be the guard who may not be the next Kemba, but he could just as easily become the next leader with an endless vat of basketball smarts.
Vance Jackson, while cooled off in his offensive game recently, not only got confidence in his shooting back after a poor start to the season, but the defensive experience he’s gained while being a starter is something that will be priceless next year. Especially as one of the bigger guys on the team with Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey leaving next year, his experience in the post will be a fantastic compliment to Larrier and Steven Enoch.
This season may not have been a total disaster. While maybe they would be in third place in the conference right now with a full roster, there’s just no way to tell when the team would have started gelling. Players key to next year’s crucial season are gaining knowledge on the court they otherwise would not have, and they are certainly making the most of it. The team has bounced back in such an incredible way that winning the conference tournament isn’t even a laughable statement to make.
Injuries are never good. Losing is never good. Embarrassment is never good. It’s what a team does in the wake of it all that really determines just how talented they are.