On Monday, following the loss to Memphis, head coach Dan Hurley sat down with four young members of the UConn roster: freshmen Sidney Wilson and Brendan Adams, along with sophomores Tyler Polley and Josh Carlton.
With Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert injured, this was a glimpse of the future of UConn basketball. While the dream of taking down No. 9 Houston came up painfully short, there were plenty of reasons for optimism. Here’s how those four fared against one of the best 10 teams in the country.
Wilson was coming off the most complete performance of his collegiate career, posting 16 points, six rebounds and three blocks against Memphis. But at practice on Wednesday, Wilson made it clear he saw room for improvement.
“I did good things but I also made a lot of mistakes,” Wilson said. “Defensively, rebounding-wise, we made good plays but we made too many mistakes.”
That preparation paid dividends, as Wilson looked as good on the defensive end as he has all season. In the first half alone, he made a pair of building-shaking plays on defensive end; first intercepting a pass, giving him a run-out as he took flight at the rim and cranked back a powerful slam. Soon afterwards, with time running out in the half, Wilson had an emphatic block, practically spiking the ball through the hardwood.
“Wilson’s gonna be a good player, I like him,” said Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson after the game. “His athleticism is gonna be a factor. They’ve got a lot of good young players, it’s just a matter of time before Danny gets this thing going.”
For Wilson, some defensive issues certainly still remain. He’s still prone to lapses off the ball, such as at the 8:38 mark in the second half, when Wilson fell asleep in the corner, allowing his assignment to throw down an uncontested alley-oop. But the improvement on the defensive end from the beginning of the season is undeniable.
“He’s gotten better across the board,” Hurley said on Wednesday. “He’s a better shooter than he was, he’s a better ball-handler than he was. He’s just a raw, talented athlete, like a piece of clay you can mold from here.”
Offensively, it was a mixed bag for the redshirt freshman. He came up with some big buckets when UConn needed them most; getting the Huskies on the board after four scoreless minutes with a 3 and drawing an and-one during UConn’s second half drought.
Though he also disappeared too often, and seemed hesitant to pull the trigger after missing a shot on a previous trip. He had two turnovers without a single assist, finishing with 12 points.
“We need him to become a better passer, but he’s a talent,” Hurley said. “He’s gotta grow up, his work ethic has gotta continue to get better. He can become a very good all-around player, but can he develop the right mindset, can he obsess over his craft every day? That’ll determine how good Sid gets.”
At this point, it seems more psychological than anything else with Adams, who has struggled with his shot for most of the season. Adams finished with three points, attempting just three shots.
There were certainly highlights. He drilled his first 3 of the game, giving UConn an 18-15 lead and bringing the crowd to its feet. A few minutes later, Adams dove for a loose ball and wrestled it away from a Houston defender—a play which was, no surprise, heartily applauded by Hurley on the sidelines.
But from there, Adams was mostly nonexistent on the offensive end. He missed his next two field goals and, confidence dashed, settled into pass-first mode. With UConn badly needing a bucket at the start of the second half, the ball found Adams in the corner, wide open on the break. He hesitated, took a nervous dribble and passed it off, this time drawing groans from the crowd. The talent is there, but currently, the short memory is not.
Polley seems to have re-discovered his 3-point stroke, and that’s big news for a team which will be playing without one of its best long range shooters for possibly the remainder of the season. After going 4-for-7 against Memphis, Polley was 2-of-4 from deep against the Cougars, including a massive one as the Huskies clawed their way back into the game.
Overall, however, it was a quiet showing for Polley with just nine points in 34 minutes. Polley’s 3-point shooting may be much-needed, but at times he settles into becoming solely a spot-up 3-point shooter. For a guy with an underrated ability to drive to the rim and a smooth turn-around jumper, he’ll need to re-expand his arsenal within the UConn offense.
Carlton had the ball in his hands a lot on Thursday, but against the stifling Houston defense which repeatedly brought double teams inside, he struggled to do much with it. He shot just 2-of-7 from the field, a low figure considering all seven attempts came in the paint. The sophomore was also just 4-of-10 from the charity stripe (the team was just 14-of-25 combined), leaving plenty of points at the line.
Carlton did, however, pull down 10 rebounds, many of which at high-degree of difficulty. He also had a pair of blocks, including a huge one during UConn’s late run which keyed a Wilson 3 on the other end to pull within seven. The comeback ultimately proved too little, too late, but that play in particular—a Carlton stuff on one end and a Wilson bucket on the other—was a bright sign of what’s to come.
“If we want this program to get back to where it’s supposed to be, we gotta lay the foundation as the young guys,” Carlton said after the game. “With the older guys going out, it’s our time to take over and lead the team.”