It’s been almost two weeks since the UConn men’s basketball team’s season came to a frustrating end. For some, I can imagine that it must have been liberating—having to watch Kevin Ollie and the team struggle to balance a rotation of just six players for 40 minutes against teams who run out ten different players in the first five minutes just for fun, (looking at you, Mick Cronin), was maddening to watch.
They say you can’t appreciate the good days without enduring the bad ones. This season was the manifestation of that cliché. You couldn’t fully appreciate how monumental the comeback against Memphis was if they didn’t get destroyed the first time around. The second-round win against Houston would have been run-of-the-mill for UConn if they didn’t lose to them twice in the regular season.
But most importantly, the tenacity and character of the team and Ollie would have been lost in the shadows if UConn didn’t finish with a losing record for the first time in 31 years.
A team that played with a bench of Christian Vital for the majority of the season was on the cusp of being third in the conference. A team that lost three players before they could even get out of Maui made it to the semifinal of the conference tournament. A team that looked like they wouldn’t even be able to beat up USF finished with nine conference wins, including two over UCF, one of the best defensive teams in the country by metrics.
A lot of people like to say that Ollie is a better recruiter than he is a coach. While I can’t bring myself to disagree necessarily, what he did with this year’s team may rebuke that point ever so slightly. He helped turn Vance Jackson from a kid who couldn’t find the basket to the leading 3-point shooter in conference play. He helped bring Christian Vital from the least talked about freshman in the recruiting class to a spunky, energetic presence on the court whose resolve was palpable to even the upper-deck dwellers at the XL Center.
These two players are going to be crucial as the next three years of their careers unfold. Without injuries, we would have never seen Jackson and Vital playing over 25 minutes per game. They would have never been thrust into the spotlight in a relatively low-pressure season. With these two, the team has that much more depth heading into next year.
In some ways, I wish my first season covering basketball didn’t have to go like this. I wish UConn could have had a full season of Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert, and I wish they could have finished first in the American for the first time ever. In other ways, this is the kind of season that needed to happen; for UConn to get down, only to remember that, “Hey, we’re UConn!” and fight back.
The only way I can describe the feeling I felt after the Huskies pulled out their victory against Houston in the conference tournament is genuine excitement. I had expected to go home for Spring Break the next morning, yet I found myself writing the happy recap and preparing a preview capsule for Saturday’s game at 2 a.m. I believed they could actually beat Cincinnati. For the first time since Syracuse, butterflies were in a whirlwind in my stomach, as the prospect of reaching the conference final actually became a possibility.
Losing to Cincinnati was not fun. Losing in the fashion they did was doubly bad. I still believe if the referees didn’t cause the pace of play to be so staccato, UConn could have pulled out a victory, despite being the objectively worse team.
I was genuinely sad when it came to an end. I didn’t want to stop going to media day after practices. I didn’t want to stop reserving my nights to make the trek through the frozen tundra of Storrs, or to leave two hours before tip to make it to the XL Center on time to get the chicken salad sandwich.
Being able to cover basketball as a sophomore was an unforgettable experience, no matter the outcome of the season. It wasn’t all fun and games, nor was it ideal. But it was a hell of a ride, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
I have high hopes for next year’s team. Makai Ashton-Langford just sounds like the name of the next UConn great—he’s pretty good at basketball, too. Ollie has a lot of depth to work with, and hopefully this time they stay healthy; I’m sure he’ll have a field day with all of the guard talent he’ll have to work with. The frontcourt may have some issues without Amida Brimah, but we all knew that would be the case even if they made the Final Four this year.
With Wichita State likely coming to the American, UConn has that much more of a barrier to overcome. But if they can fight back from the depths with only six players, I believe they’ll certainly make the most of their trip to Kansas with a full roster.
Let’s hope they don’t leave anyone behind at the airport.