The first ball Sidney Wilson ever touched as a UConn Husky slipped through his hands and bounced out of bounds. He had a chance for redemption on the next possession after grabbing a rebound, but his dunk attempt was thoroughly rejected by the rim.
It wasn’t ideal, but at least it was a start.
“It was his first minutes in college basketball,” Christian Vital said of his teammate. “Once he starts understanding, you know, gets his feel back for playing in games, y’all gonna see a Sid you haven’t seen before, I promise you that.”
Wilson, a redshirt freshman, didn’t play any games last year due to transfer rules and sat out the first seven games of this season due to violating university policy. He played five minutes in Tuesday’s 97-75 rout of UMass Lowell, grabbing three rebounds but scoring zero points.
He’s still got a lot of rust to shake off, head coach Dan Hurley said, and a lot to prove.
“We just haven’t been preparing for Sid’s return, we’ve been — I don’t want to say moved on without him with the team we had, but that’s what we had to do to win the first seven games,” Hurley said. “Now the onus is on Sid, day-to-day in our program to get himself on the court with his practice habits and his attention to detail with learning our system.”
In his absence, sophomore Tyler Polley has been more than serviceable as a wing, averaging 8.9 points per game. He had another quality night on Tuesday, netting nine points on 4-for-7 shooting with three rebounds.
In fact, it was another night of all-around solid performances from the Husky offense. Jalen Adams scored 13 in the second half and totaled 19, Josh Carlton once again netted double-digits with 15 points and eight rebounds and Alterique Gilbert had another solid game with 15 points, four rebounds and six assists.
Vital had a monster first half, scoring 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting from the floor. He sunk three 3-point shots in the span of three minutes, which helped balloon UConn’s lead to 21 points with just under 10 minutes to go in the first half. He finished with 19, tied for team-best on the night.
“I was just playing, you know, my teammates were doing a great job of finding me,” Vital said. “And then I just did my job and knocked the shots down, but I appreciate my teammates for finding me.”
It was the fourth time UConn has gotten to 90 points in a game this season and their highest point total in a regular season game since dropping 97 on USF in 2016-17. At least four players have scored double-digits every game so far this season. They’ve scored at least 80 points in every game except the loss to Iowa.
Clearly, the offense is no longer a problem. But the defense? Well, there’s still a lot of work to be done in that department. Despite a 22-point win, UConn allowed the Riverhawks to shoot 55.6 percent in the second half and 49.1 percent overall, in addition to 41.7 percent from beyond the arc.
That’s not going to fly against bigger, more talented teams like Arizona, who the Huskies play on Sunday.
“We start getting out of position; a foot, two feet, our rotations, our close-outs get sloppy. We just lose our integrity and become irresponsible, and that’s just a sign of a team that’s not used to winning, doesn’t understand what this thing’s all about,” Hurley said. “It was just a lack of focus. I thought we played really hard, but we kind of just ran around, not obeying the rules of our defense.”
UConn built their first half lead up to 23 points before completely dropping off on both sides of the ball, closing the first half by going 2-for-12 from the floor and allowing UMass Lowell to go on a 25-12 run. A 32-9 lead was suddenly 44-34 after 20 minutes, and even with a 22-point win, the Huskies only got 18 points off the fast break.
Defense was a problem in UConn’s lone loss this season to a team that could emerge as a serious contender in the Big 10. And Arizona is not an impossible mountain to climb. but Hurley said while the team isn’t going to drastically change in eight months, if they play how they did at the end of the first half for even two minutes against Arizona, they’ll have no chance of winning.
“That game at halftime should have never been 10. It never should have been. It should have been 22 or 24,” Hurley said. “It’s just bad habits. It’s a bad mindset. Again, we’re not going to change that in seven or eight months, so it’s more frustration on my end because we’re building a program, we’re building habits, we’re building a mindset, obviously we’re building our personnel.
“So it’s like, I’m mad at them, but it’s not entirely their fault.”
Every player, save for the graduate transfers, have played under the old regime, where the offense wasn’t good enough to pick up for the lack of defense. Now that the buckets are there, it’s up to the players to figure out how they can improve and stay up to snuff with the best teams in the country.
“I think we just didn’t defend the ball well, and that’s a product of not getting good shots off of our bad defense, we have to defend the ball better,” Carlton said. “I think we’re going to try to take advantage of these couple days for preparation. Just trying to string together a couple good practices before we take on Arizona and have our focuses on… defense, guarding the ball, rotations, all the things like that.”