Three straight losing seasons is never a good thing, especially for a program that won two national championships this decade. But this season felt noticeably different from the last two.
That’s largely because it was the first year at the helm for Dan Hurley, who previously coached at URI. At his introductory press conference in March, Hurley called the UConn job “the opportunity of lifetime,” promising to restore the “championship culture” of the program.
It didn’t happen in year one, but there were certainly some bright spots. The Huskies knocked off rival Syracuse, ranked No. 15 at the time, in Madison Square Garden. They lost just one game at Gampel Pavilion all season. Sophomore Josh Carlton was named the conference’s Most Improved Player, doubling his per-game averages of points and rebounds from a season ago.
There were plenty of low points as well. The team finished with just a 16-17 record, including 1-8 in true road games, finishing in ninth place in the American Athletic Conference. Injuries slowed the Huskies all year, as Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert combined to miss 15 games.
Expectations are always going to be excessively high for a first-year head coach. After all, for the most part, these are not Hurley’s players. The promising start, including the win over the Orange, raised expectations even higher—expectations that were probably unrealistic for such an inexperienced roster.
Experience is most needed in close games, and that’s where UConn repeatedly fell short this season. The Huskies lost 10 games by single digits. A couple bounces go differently and the brutal 76-72 loss to Arizona in front of a deafening XL Center crowd is instead a statement victory. If Christian Vital hits the shot as time expires in Cincinnati, or if Wichita State’s Samajae Haynes-Jones doesn’t hit a buzzer beater in Wichita, that’s two more in the win column.
The season-ending loss to top-seeded Houston in the AAC tournament was settled long before the final buzzer. The Cougars were simply far and away the better team, nearly doubling the Huskies’ point total. After the game, an emotional Hurley, sitting next to senior Jalen Adams for the final time, said “It was just a humbling reminder of how far we have to go.”
Adams, the star point guard and unquestioned leader of the team, led UConn in scoring for the third straight season. He closes his career with the 10th-most points in program history, falling just five points shy of becoming the conference’s all-time scoring leader. He leaves behind a complicated legacy, but has been invaluable to the program during its most difficult stretch in decades.
Who will fill his shoes next season? Gilbert is expected to return from the shoulder injury that ended his season prematurely, and Vital announced that he will return for his senior year. Carlton will continue to be the Huskies’ go-to inside presence, and Sidney Wilson’s role will likely be significantly expanded as a sophomore.
There’s more help on the way. Highly-touted forward Akok Akok joined the team as a second-semester walk on, and will be eligible as a redshirt freshman in the fall. Talented recruits James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney have committed, two talented backcourt additions from the top 100. ESPN’s No. 16 recruit Precious Achiuwa has yet to commit anywhere, though UConn is rumored to be a favorite. Whether Hurley lands him or not, the team is already poised to make a large stride forward next year.
Hurley has a history of vastly improving his teams from year one to two, doubling his win total at Wagner and nearly doing the same at URI. What happens next year at UConn? That remains to be seen, but the energy and optimism surrounding the program is the highest it’s been in years.
Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @asmor24