Nearly a quarter of the way through the season, UConn’s guard rotation is averaging a combined 54.4 points per game. This is not just impressive, it’s uncharted territory for UConn basketball.
No UConn backcourt rotation, going back to the 1980s, has ever combined for that much. The 2018-19 squad likely won’t sustain this historic pace, but it gives an idea of how important guards are to this team’s success.
UConn has started Jalen Adams, Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert in all six games so far this season, while Tarin Smith comes off the bench to play an average of 25 minutes per game. All four bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the team, but each of them has benefited from playing in new head coach Dan Hurley’s system, which features a full court press and encouraging creativity in transition.
“It’s just pressuring guys, getting them to turn it over, let ‘em know that you’re gonna be there all day, then on offense end it’s just get out and have fun, get out on the break,” Adams said. “It’s a great system for me, I enjoy it a lot.”
Gilbert is simultaneously the lead distributor of the group (4.1 assists per game) and the sharpshooter, taking near five 3’s in each contest and making them at a .469 clip. It’s not too bad for someone who has only played nine games over the past two years, but he’s just dipping his toes in the water in Hurley’s new system.
“I think for me it’s a learning process definitely, but I’m taking my time,” Gilbert said. “Just trying to accomplish small goals and take baby steps, really.”
The fact that a former top-30 recruit averaging 13 points, four rebounds and four assists per game is still getting used to playing basketball again isn’t a welcome prospect for UConn’s future opponents. But with as hard as Gilbert has been on himself this year, it’s reality.
“I think his expectation is he was gonna pick up right where he left off,” Hurley said. “He has really, really special abilities, he’s just been getting frustrated with himself the last couple games so it was good to see him have some joy.”
Although Jalen is still the “alpha dog” of the group, according to Hurley, UConn’s guard surplus has been critical in lightening his load on the season, which will be important if the Huskies want to make any sort of run this year.
Adams played almost the full 40 minutes per game in 2017-18; now he’s down to 30. His points have remained steady at around 18 per game, but his assists (2.6) and rebounds (3.7) are both down, likely a factor of him playing off-ball more this year. Again, early returns, but Adams has been directly involved in 25 percent of plays run with him on the floor in 2018 as opposed to nearly 30 percent last year. He’s clearly had a smaller load this year, and having three other competent guards has been a big reason why.
“It gives me that crazy confidence that even if I have an off night I know my brothers will be there to pick me back up, they’re all willing to take over that top scoring spot,” Adams said.
Vital has seen a similar trend in usage paired with more prolific play, with career highs in field goal percentage and assists. His usual hustle plays have also carried over into 2018 — his rebounding and defense have both improved, and he tallied the third double-double of his career on Saturday against UNH.
“There’s something comforting about having him on the court because of the level of competitor that he is,” Hurley said.
Even though Vital has benefitted as much as anyone in Hurley’s system, he’s also been more careless with the ball than Hurley would like (a team-high 2.7 turnovers per game), and his poor shot selection hasn’t helped his development, the coach said.
“If we could just eliminate those two or three [bad shots] a game, for him moving on in the career, it helps us win if he takes better shots,” Hurley said. “He defends, he rebounds like he’s in to fight. Those are all amazing qualities but for him to take the next steps in his career he’s gonna have to become more efficient in his numbers.”
And then there’s the wildcard, Smith. Every time the grad transfer gets his man isolated at the top of the key, it looks like he wants to embarrass him and make him look like a complete fool. He succeeds ever so often.
Last Tuesday against Cornell he crossed his defender up, leaving him prone on the floor, then later lost his man and rose up for a tomahawk dunk.
Storrs is Smith’s third stop in his college career, starting out in Nebraska all the way back in 2014, spent two years in Duquesne and now dropping by UConn for a year.
“It’s been fun, it’s been a learning process,” Smith said. “I did it before once, coming to a new place and having a new experience, but it’s been fun, obviously when you win it’s a lot better.”
Smith has been great at finishing through contact — a .650 field goal percentage inside the arc is usually reserved for post players — and drawing fouls, posting an elite .406 free throw rate in his career.
“He’s an integral part,” Hurley said. “I could easily start him at one of the guard spots, but right now we’ll keep him in his role for now.”
Smith does need to improve his actual form however, shooting just 52.6 percent from the line, but overall he’s been a massive upgrade over last year’s stopgap grad transfer guard Antwoine Anderson, who shot just 39.1percent from the floor and 25.1percent from three last year.
Freshman Brendan Adams has been the odd man out of UConn’s guard rotation so far in 2018. He’s gotten 16 minutes per game so far, but the transition into college hasn’t been all roses. He’s shot just 34.5 percent from the floor and 22.2 percent from three, but Hurley says that he’ll have to be thrown in the fire in order to improve and become a solid rotational player in his career at UConn.
“He’s a guy that could help us right now with his shooting and he’s also a guy that we need long term building this,” Hurley said. “We’re trying to win now but we’re also trying to build for the future.”
Combined, Adams, Vital, Gilbert and Smith are going to win UConn a lot of games if they keep up the pace they’re at. According to Hurley, they’ll have to if UConn wants to get to where they want to be in 2019 and beyond.
“The reality of our season is if we’re gonna be successful and surprise people this year, our guards are gonna have to be consistently really, really good,” Hurley said.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.