Jalen Adams left UConn as the tenth all-time scorer in program history. Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier helped bring a title to Storrs and transformed into perennial All-Americans. Now, the two programs look to a pair of rising seniors to step into new roles: Christian Vital and Crystal Dangerfield.
The two guards have had the luxury of never needing to be “the guy” for their respective teams. Adams led the team in scoring for three consecutive seasons for the men while Samuelson and Collier dominated on the court and in the headlines for Geno Auriemma. Now, it’s time for the Class of 2020 to step up.
“I’m happy with where [Vital’s] at right now: his mindset, the way he’s carrying himself in the program, what he’s focused on, where our relationship is at,” head coach Dan Hurley said in May during the UConn Coaches Road Show. “He’s acting the way you’d want a senior to act right now and statistically he had his best year that he’s had. He’s gotta build on that.”
Vital is coming off his best, and most efficient season, in a UConn uniform. The Queens Village, N.Y. native increased both his field goal and three point percentages by nearly a hundred points each as a junior, while grabbing 5.6 rebounds a contest, good enough for second on the team. Though he saw his numbers dip later in the year, and was moved to the bench for a stint, Hurley believes his lone senior can be a leader for this team.
“I’m hoping,” Hurley said. “I think he can definitely help Alterique [Gilbert] that way. If he’s locked in the way he’s capable of and focused on the right things, people will follow him because of how hard he plays.”
Summer practices have been busy for Gilbert and Vital with the additions of two top-100 ranked prospects joining the Huskies’ backcourt. Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight, a pair of four-star guards, headline the incoming freshman class. The veteran and established backcourt, and recently landed transfer R.J. Cole, have been tasked with bringing the new guys along, something Hurley thinks will elevate the overall competition in practices now and in the long run.
“Those two guys [Gilbert and Vital] help a lot. To get to practice against those two guys and R.J. Cole, and even Tyler [Polley]… the level of competition in practice is going to be much different this year.”
Polley and returning starter Josh Carlton welcomed redshirt freshman Akok Akok (pronounced ah-kook ah-kook) to the Huskies’ thin frontcourt. Though the five-star recruit, who CBS Sports ranked 21 in the 2019 recruiting class, was on campus to round off last year’s disappointing 16-17 season, he will make his regular season debut with Bouknight and Gaffney on Friday, Nov. 8 against Sacred Heart University.
The women’s team is entering the 2019-2020 season fresh off their third-straight Final Four loss. For a program that hung banners the four seasons prior, Dangerfield has only felt heartbreak. Now with Samuelson and Collier beginning their WNBA careers, the spotlight is all on the senior point guard.
“I think anytime you have the ball in your hands a lot, you got a lot of responsibility,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “And sometimes it’s easy because of the people you have around you and sometimes it’s hard. I think next year is going to be her most difficult year.”
The spotlight has not always been kind to Dangerfield. In UConn’s Sweet 16 matchup with UCLA she was held scoreless in the first half. Though she exploded for 15 points after halftime, Auriemma says her second half performance needs “to be a part of her regular routine.”
“She’ll be the first to tell you, she’s not happy with the way she played in some of the bigger games that we had last year. She’s not happy with the way she led or some of the things she coulda done, shoulda done. I feel good. I feel great about her. I think she’s gonna have a great year,” Auriemma said.
It will take more than just Dangerfield if the Huskies want to raise another banner. With junior Megan Walker by her side, Dangerfield will help guide Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams through their sophomore campaigns, while newcomers Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat, Murray State graduate transfer Evelyn Adebayo and, possibly, Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook, figure out what it means to be a Husky.
This season will test Dangerfield differently than prior years have. She doesn’t have to worry about fitting or figuring out her role, those things are clear. It’s how she fulfills her role as the leader of one of the most dominant programs in college athletics. Her leadership style has yet to be truly seen, but for Auriemma, it’s her on-court performance that needs to do the talking.
“I think Crystal’s first priority is gonna have to be ‘I gotta make sure I play in a way that shows that I’m a leader. Not tell everyone I am. Not say this is what we need to do,’ Show everybody what we need to do,” Auriemma said.
Dangerfield will get her chance to show her stuff, alongside her teammates, on Sunday, Nov. 10 when UConn hosts Cal to open the 2019-2020 campaign.
Kevin Arnold is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.