As the calendar inches closer and closer to the first official game of the college basketball season, the Huskies will take the floor for the first time in uniform tonight when they host the St. Michael’s Purple Knights for an exhibition game at the XL Center.
While the final score won’t impact UConn’s record in the win or loss columns, the game as a whole will indicate what kind of team the Huskies are for the 2019-20 season. Head coach Dan Hurley emphasized the need to play winning basketball when he spoke to the media Tuesday.
“Hopefully tomorrow the message with these guys is like, ‘we gotta play with a lot of urgency,’” Hurley said. “We’re not coming off back-to-back second weekend subway tournament, we’re coming off of three-straight losing seasons. We’re trying to establish a winning brand of basketball and it’s gotta start with not trying to out-talent someone.”
UConn got an early glimpse at the team on Saturday in a closed-door scrimmage against Harvard. The Huskies won 86-80 and were led by Christian Vital’s 27 points in a game where the team looked “mature,” Hurley said.
Alterique Gilbert and Tyler Polley combined for 34 points in the scrimmage. The two, along with Vital, will be critical to the Huskies’ success this season as Hurley said he’s looking for “what guys can take their game to another level.”
“We’re just trying to build on our habits, winning habits,” Gilbert said. “The defensive end, the most important thing for us tomorrow, just to get stops. And play with a lot of heart.”
The Huskies are set to start Gilbert and Vital in the backcourt, with Tyler Polley playing guard and Josh Carlton manning the center spot. Starter number five is still up to debate though freshman Akok Akok got the nod against Harvard and scored six points with four rebounds. Akok and redshirt sophomore Sidney Wilson have been competing for the starting spot, but Hurley had nothing but good things to say about Akok.
“I can probably count on my hand how many bad minutes he’s had in practice in terms of his mindset, intensity and urgency,” Hurley said.
As for the highly touted freshmen guards, James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney, they have not progressed as much as Hurley would have liked. Bouknight is dealing with an off-the-court incident while Gaffney had been dealing with a bad ankle before returning to practice this week. Hurley said Gaffney won’t play in the exhibition, but hopes to have him ready for the season opener on Nov. 8. Bouknight’s status is still unclear, but Hurley said more information will become available soon.
“We don’t want to put a lot of pressure on [the freshmen],” Gilbert said. “We want them to just come in and play. I think they’re going to help us a lot.”
The support from the young guys will be a nice addition to a team that lost its leading scorer from a season ago in Jalen Adams. Still, the Huskies are returning seven players and large chunks of their offense: 62.4% of total scoring, 76.6% of made 3-pointers, 55.5% of assists, 57.2% of rebounding and 64.5% of steals.
Tonight’s matchup will be the fourth between the Huskies and the Purple Knights who finished 7-19 overall last year. St. Michael’s is led by Eli DiGrande, a senior who led the team in scoring (10.2) and rebounding (6.3) last year. The last time the two teams faced off was in February 1930, when UConn won 39-28 in a game played in the Hawley Armory on campus.
For Hurley-led teams of the past, Year 2s have shown the change in programs. His first year at Wagner, his team went 13-17. Year 2? His Seahawks went 25-6 with a 15-3 conference record. At Rhode Island, the Rams went 8-21 when he first got there before a 14-18 season the year after. So far in UConn’s Year 2, Hurley said his guys are looking like a “more formidable” team.
“We look a lot more like a good college team when the ball tips,” Hurley said.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen after that, but at least when they introduce us we’re going to look right,” he added, jokingly.
The game is set for a 7 p.m. tip-off at the XL Center in Hartford and can be streamed from uconnhuskies.com.
Kevin Arnold is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. He tweets @karnold98.