UConn fans got their first look at this year’s men’s basketball squad on Saturday with an open practice, where the team put on an encouraging display of physicality and chemistry.
It’s been an exhausting couple weeks for the team according to head coach Dan Hurley as the team ramps up its conditioning, a necessary quality for Hurley’s teams to have given his fast-paced, transition-focused offense.
“It’s taken its toll physically on these guys, they’re pretty tired,” Hurley said on the team’s preseason regimen. “We’ve got to make a huge jump defensively this year so we’re doing so much defensive work which makes practices grueling, and then the other part is, in the early practices we’re trying to toughen up the team and bring the team together.”
The defensive emphasis was evident during Saturday’s open practice, in which the team did a combination of drills and five-on-five scrimmaging. Points were tough to come by in the scrimmaging, not due to a lack of shot-making but because of some engaged, aggressive defensive work across the board.
Though Hurley ranked the practice as a five on his scale, play was physical and chippy. Yet despite the chippiness, the team’s chemistry was already on display. Players were seen encouraging each other after whistles, and joking around afterwards. When Alterique Gilbert, who has dealt with injuries throughout his UConn career, took a nasty spill towards the end of practice, quite literally the entire team rushed over to help him to his feet.
The crowd, roughly 500 people at the start, was especially impressed by the play of freshman James Bouknight, repeatedly oohing-and-ahhing at his ball-handling and scoring. However, at one point, Hurley jokingly scolded the crowd for cheering on Bouknight’s offense when his effort was lacking on defense.
“Yeah, with Bouknight, I tried to get them to stop encouraging him to just play one end,” Hurley explained afterwards.
The physicality comes with some costs, as the team is already dealing with a couple of minor injuries. Freshman Jalen Gaffney and redshirt freshman Akok Akok were in uniform on Saturday but did not participate in any drills.
Afterwards, Hurley said that he expects to have Gaffney back in about a week. Akok has a mild foot sprain and the team will proceed with caution, but he too should return shortly.
“It happened sometime in mid-practice yesterday and he didn’t tell anybody and just kept going, and told us about an hour after practice,” Hurley said on Akok’s injury. “It doesn’t seem serious and he was really needling me to get back to practice today but he’s got a long career ahead of him so we’re going to take good care of him.”
Akok was standing on the sideline for the entirety of Saturday’s practice and appeared eager to check in, though Hurley never gave him the nod. Assuming he can stay healthy, he’ll be counted on to play crucial frontcourt minutes in his first season in a UConn jersey.
Following practice, Hurley expressed his appreciation for the crowd and answered some questions from fans. He assured the media after practice that his own health is not an issue, and his voice is nearly back at full Hurley levels after undergoing neck and back surgery early last month.
Perhaps the most revealing moments of Hurley’s conversation with the press came in his response to comments made by Providence head coach Ed Cooley last week. Cooley said that UConn’s impending move to the Big East gave the program “new life,” and that UConn has “finally [come] to the conclusion that it’s a basketball-centric school,” instead of “pouring all their money into football,” money which Cooley believed “was going into a hole.” (https://www.providencejournal.com/sports/20191010/big-east-briefs-seton-hall-rising-friars-hurting-cooley-calls-out-uconn).
Hurley acknowledged that the outside consensus is that the American Athletic Conference was hurting UConn basketball but argued that the program was already on the rise even before the Big East announcement was made.
“I get Ed’s point, he’s probably taking it from a sports fan’s perspective, or another coach evaluating another university. People have talked about that in our business, the impact that the American was having on UConn men’s basketball. What Ed said was not a hidden secret, people were talking about that openly.”
“I disagree with it, but I don’t take offense to it. We already had recruited Akok and James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney and R.J. Cole, and were already in a position to bring in a top-10 recruiting class before I guess the Big East ‘saved’ us,” Hurley said sarcastically. “Our basketball program was well on its way to doing what I did at Wagner and Rhode Island.”
Though Hurley said he didn’t feel slighted by Cooley’s comments, he also made a possible jab at the Providence coach’s “pontificating” on UConn’s athletic programs.
“I’m just focused on my job here, I’ve got enough work. I can’t try to make assessments at what’s going on at other universities. I’m just trying to be great at UConn,” Hurley said. “The Big East is certainly going to help UConn. UConn’s getting its act together now, and we were way before we returned to the Big East. I’ll leave it at that.”
Fans will have one more chance to see the team before the season at First Night on Friday at Gampel. The Huskies take on Saint Michael’s in an exhibition on Oct. 30 at the XL Center.
Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @asmor24.