Photos by Charlotte Lao/The Daily Campus
UConn’s First Night is a welcomed yearly tradition that, for many, marks the beginning of the college basketball season. While this rings true for Dan Hurley’s current team, it also plays a big role in what the team will look like in seasons yet to come.
“It’s a big recruiting thing,” Hurley said. “Official visits, unofficial visits, it’s key. Even if you don’t have prospects visiting, to run a great event and have it packed, word spreads that you had a great event and had a big student turnout. The biggest thing is, it wakes up the team. It’s cold outside. Games are coming.”
While games loom in the near future, First Night gives the program a chance to sell their brand to the college basketball world, as well as recruits. In attendance at this year’s festivities was Andre Jackson, the first commit to the class of 2020. Along with Jackson, the program hosted recruits Donovan Clingan and Javonte Brown-Ferguson. Clingan is a Class of 2022 recruit from Bristol Central while Brown-Ferguson is a 6-foot-11 center from the Class of 2021.
For former recruit and current redshirt freshman Akok Akok, First Night planted the idea of what it would be like to play in Storrs. Now, it’s a reality.
“I always wondered what it would be like to perform as a basketball player here,” Akok said. “Now, it feels so real.”
Akok will join Josh Carlton as part of a solid and somewhat undersized core of UConn big men. Carlton, one of the reigning Most Improved Players in the conference from a season ago, says First Night provides an opportunity to show off the kind of support the program receives.
“Hopefully he’s able to see the type of support we have here at UConn and how much the fans love us, even if it’s not a game,” Carlton said. “Having the turnout we’re probably going to have. Give him a little taste of what it’s like to be a Husky.”
With UConn legend Kemba Walker in attendance, it couldn’t have been too hard to sell the UConn brand. Freshman Jalen Gaffney had previously met Walker at the age of 6, when the current Boston Celtic was playing for Rice High. Now, the young guard hopes the revamped First Night can have a similar impact on Jackson & Co. as it did on him.
“I know the impact it had on me was great,” Gaffney said. “I know just seeing the guys have so much fun, interacting with the fans, gets you excited for the season and coming here and knowing the huge fan base you have. It makes you want to play even more for the school.”
This iteration of First Night pushed the 3-on-3 intersquad scrimmage to the wayside in favor of a skills competition before the Fall Concert. Tyler Polley and Molly Bent took home the crowns for their respective squads in the 3-point shootout. James Bouknight’s dunk over Richie Springs and Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s one-hand slam highlighted the dunk contest ahead of T-Pain’s performance.
Bouknight, who says he and Jackson are “like brothers,” said his First Night experience was fun and would be something Jackson thinks about for a while.
“Me, last year, I came here for First Night and it was fun just knowing next year I’m going to be a part of it,” Bouknight said. “I think it’ll definitely sit in his mind knowing he’s going to be in this next year.”
Until next year comes, the Huskies have a full year of basketball ahead of them. Before the second year under Dan Hurley officially starts on Nov. 8 against Sacred Heart, UConn will play an exhibition game against St. Michael’s College at the XL Center on Oct. 30.
Kevin Arnold is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. He tweets @karnold98.