It was a loud and exciting start to the UConn men’s basketball season as the Huskies took down Morehead State, 80-70, on Thursday night. There was noted improvement from just a week ago, some remaining area for improvement, an unlikely star and, of course, an energetic Gampel Pavilion. Here are four takeaways from the Huskies’ season-opening win.
The defense already looks better
In last week’s exhibition, UConn’s defense, not the offense, was the primary concern. The Huskies communicated poorly on ball screens and were repeatedly a step slow on close-outs, giving up open 3-pointers.
After practice on Wednesday, head coach and players echoed that those weaknesses were the focal points of practice this week.
“We’ve been trying to perfect the things that we’ve been struggling with, which is being great in ball screens, transition defense and offensive rebounding,” Jalen Adams said after practice on Wednesday. The results were evident in Thursday’s game.
The Huskies had just four blocks in the exhibition against SCSU. On Thursday, they doubled that count and altered countless more shots at the rim. Isaiah Whaley, who left the court briefly in the first with an apparent ankle injury but returned later, and Josh Carlton had two blocks apiece.
UConn also forced the Eagles into 17 turnovers, led by solid defensive work from Christian Vital. With just eight points and four turnovers, it was a tough game offensively for Vital, but he made up for it on the defensive end, gathering three steals. Hurley has already proven he can make noticeable strides with the team in not even a week’s time.
The halfcourt offense struggles at times
Easy shots were few and far between in the first half and an alarming number of possessions ended with a forced shot or a turnover. Dan Hurley’s offenses usually feature a disorienting amount of off-the-ball movement and passing to generate good looks. That was mostly absent on Thursday for stretches of the game.
This is clearly a team which plays best when it plays fast. After Morehead State trimmed the lead to 18-15, the Huskies responded with a 9-0 run, all of which came on the fast break or in the first seconds of the shot clock.
But that was more of an exception than the norm in the first half. The Huskies had just three points off turnovers in the half compared to Morehead State’s 12. With only four offensive rebounds, the Huskies aren’t generating enough second-chance points to afford wasted possessions.
The offense looked far more fluid in the second, getting out in transition more frequently and spreading the ball around. The Huskies shot 50% from the field in the second and attacked the rim more often, taking 12 free throws compared to just five in the first. It was a welcome halftime adjustment, but UConn will need to work on its halfcourt sets, especially when it takes on stronger defensive opponents.
Carlton comes to life
With just under seven minutes remaining, back-to-back effort plays from Carlton brought the crowd to its feet—and clearly pleased his coach in the process. Carlton hit the offensive boards and dove at a loose ball, keeping possession with the Huskies. Not even 10 seconds later, he laid out for a ball going out of bounds, spilling into the first row.
The first one to pick him up? Coach Hurley, sprinting from the bench to help up his player.
“It didn’t surprise me, that’s Coach Hurley,” Carlton said after the game on his coach’s pick-me-up. “But seeing that for a player is crazy to see. That really got me excited.”
“That was crazy,” Jalen Adams said after the game. “I’ve never seen a coach do that. Just to see him do stuff like that shows that he’s in-tuned to the game and how much he cares about us, as players, and the game. When the fans see the head coach running into the stands to help a guy out, that shows how connected we are.”
Carlton led all scorers with 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting, with eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals. But he was probably even better than his statline would suggest, sneakily picking off defenders in the post and giving maximum effort on both ends.
“Josh has real talent. If his motor is up the way it was tonight, he’s got a chance to be a really, really good player,” Hurley said. “As a young player, we’re going to have to let him play through some bad stretches, but a young big like that is certainly worth investing in.”
Carlton’s minutes last season were inconsistent with former head coach Kevin Ollie. Hurley, on the other hand, seems committed to giving Carlton steady minutes and it looks like it could pay dividends for the team.
Thursday marked the first sellout home opener in three years and the crowd certainly made its presence felt. Although there were some open seats, the student section was filled to capacity and was engaged and loud throughout the night.
Gampel was buzzing well before the opening tip, helped by the company of the entire student band alongside the student section. The crowd eagerly greeted the new coach with an enthusiastic “Hello Hurley” as he made his way onto the court.
“The crowd was great tonight, the students were awesome,” Hurley said. “We’re trying to build this program back to an elite level, and we need that. As hard as it’s been the last few years, we need that fan support.”
Morehead State starting point guard A.J. Hicks felt the pressure from the stands more than anyone else. Early in the first half, Hicks airballed a 3-pointer and afterwards was greeted with emphatic “air-ball” chants every time he touched the ball. Hicks went 0-for-11 from the field with six turnovers, scoring his first and only points via the free throw line with 9:03 remaining in the second half.
“Usually you wouldn’t expect a sold-out game after two not-so-great seasons,” Jalen Adams said. “It just shows how crazy the UConn basketball fanbase is and we need them so much for these home games.”