With basketball returning to Gampel Pavilion tonight, it’s time to look into the crystal ball for a special roundtable. Our four basketball beat writers — Andrew Morrison and Kevin Arnold on the men’s side, Jorge Eckardt and Sean Janos on the women’s — share their predictions on the upcoming season, discussing picks for Team MVP, most impactful departures and additions and where the teams will end up come March.
Andrew Morrison: When healthy, Alterique Gilbert is talented enough to join the ranks of the legendary UConn guards over the years. I think this is the year he stays healthy and puts it all together on offense, while making some substantial strides defensively. A season ago, Gilbert averaged 13 and a team-high 3.6 assists a game. Previously considered more of a pure scorer than a facilitator, Gilbert showed some astonishing court vision. Some of my favorite highlights from last season were some of ‘Rique’s absurd no-look passes — though who could forget the game-tying absolute bomb from him against Wichita State. If passing was his focus last season, it already appears that defense is this year’s emphasis, as Gilbert looked very engaged on that end in the exhibition. If Gilbert can become a slightly above-average defender and increase his scoring efficiency, he’ll be on the AAC First Team at the end of the season — I just hope it’s not his last in a UConn uniform.
Kevin Arnold: This one really comes down to a coin flip between the senior guard tandem. While Alterique Gilbert may be the most talented scorer on the team, he has yet to make it through an entire season without injury. Christian Vital is the most complete player on this year’s team and is my pick for team MVP. The senior from Queens Village, NY is the leading scorer amongst the returning vets (14.2 ppg) and finished only behind Josh Carlton in rebounds (5.6 rpg). He’s played in 96 games as a Husky and his 30.1 minutes per game clip was the highest on last year’s squad. He had by far the most steals last year (52) and was the most consistent shooter, whether it be from deep (40.9%) or from the charity stripe (81.3%). With his legacy amongst great UConn guards on the line this year, Vital is the most complete player on a team hungry for a conference title.
Sean Janos: The departures of Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson means that the Huskies will have to find those 39.3 points per game elsewhere. While implementing the “next man up” philosophy seems logical, it seems like Crystal Dangerfield is going to focus on playmaking this season more than scoring.
“I think Crystal is going to have the kind of year where when we need her to get a lot, she’s going to get a lot. When we don’t, I think she’s going to be content with making sure everyone is involved,” Geno Auriemma said.
Because of this, my pick for team MVP is Megan Walker. Last season, MW3 was fourth on the team in scoring (12.1 ppg) and second in rebounding (6.7 rpg). With Phee gone, those rebounding responsibilities are going to fall on Walker and Olivia Nelson-Ododa this year. Perhaps the most surprising improvement Walker displayed last season was her 3-point shooting. She shot 40% on 3.5 attempts per game. If she can continue gobbling up rebounds and shoot a similar 3-point percentage with a higher volume, she could be the Collier-Samuelson hybrid that the team needs.
Jorge Eckardt: If there is one thing that Geno has been hammering into the beat writers’ heads leading up to the season, it’s how important Olivia Nelson-Ododa is to this team, seeing as they don’t have anyone else close to 6-foot-5. He’s even gone as far as saying that if she gets into foul trouble early, “We’re gonna lose.” She’s a dynamic player, possessing the ability to score at will whether it be from under the basket or from a surprising range for somebody of her height. She’s a great defender as well — something that is overall lacking on this team — and should absolutely feast against competition that will be significantly smaller than her the vast majority of the time. She averaged 1.4 blocks per game last season in just 14 minutes, so it wouldn’t be crazy to see that number creep up to three or even four this season in her much-expanded role. If they can keep ONO out of foul trouble, she’s in store for a breakout, All-AAC caliber season.
Biggest loss and most impactful addition:
Morrison: No offense to Tarin Smith or Eric Cobb, but this is an easy one on the men’s side. For all of his off-the-court issues and lack of winning — most of which no fault of his own — Jalen Adams was one of the most underappreciated guards in program history. It’s not easy to replace 17 points per game, elite playmaking and the unquestioned locker room leader, but I’m confident that Vital and Gilbert are up to the task. The obvious pick for the most impactful newcomer is Akok Akok, an electric top-30 recruit who has already shown a knack for swatting shots away like flies. But I’m going with freshman Jalen Gaffney, another highly-touted recruit who could have an immediate impact in the UConn backcourt. Gaffney looked hesitant in the exhibition, but he was also still recovering from an ankle issue. With that behind him, he’s got a chance to turn some heads as a freshman, hopefully the start of a win-filled UConn career.
Arnold: Losing your point guard, your leading scorer and the heart and soul of your team is never easy, and that’s exactly what happened to the men’s team when Jalen Adams graduated. The offense ran through Adams, who led the Huskies with 16.9 points per game, but Gilbert and Vital are more than capable of handling the backcourt responsibilities in Year 2 under Dan Hurley. While he won’t be relied on to control the ball like Adams did, redshirt freshman Akok Akok’s presence will be felt from Friday’s opening tip. Hurley described the 6-foot-9 rookie as the furthest along amongst the four freshmen. Jalen Gaffney dealt with an ankle injury for most of the preseason, James Bouknight is in the middle of an off-the-court issue and Richie Springs will spend the 2019-2020 season redshirting. Meanwhile, Akok has pushed for the last starting spot in a competition with Sid Wilson. Akok started both of UConn’s preseason exhibitions and will likely start Friday. While his skillset is still very raw, Hurley is optimistic in Akok’s contributions as he matures.
Janos: Collier is definitely the Huskies’ biggest loss. Phee led the team in scoring two of the last three seasons. She averaged 20.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game while shooting a whopping 61.2% from the field her senior year. That production is going to be darn-near impossible to replace with the team that we have this season. An incoming addition that could help in the scoring column is junior transfer from Tennessee Evina Westbrook. The key word in that sentence is “could.” The 6-foot guard was denied a waiver to play this season, but the Huskies are optimistic that UConn’s appeal will go well.
“She knows that we’re behind her 100%. We’re waiting to see what they’re going to do with the appeal, but we’re in her ear saying to keep practicing like she’s going to get it, because you never know what is going to happen,” Dangerfield said.
Westbrook led Tennessee with 14.9 points and 5.3 assists per game last season, so if she’s able to play this season, her offensive contributions will go a very long way for the Huskies.
Eckardt: While Napheesa is certainly a huge loss, I think the Huskies are actually going to be missing someone else more than the reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year. That person is none other than her partner in crime, Katie Lou Samuelson. Lou averaged 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists last season and essentially lived behind the three-point arc. Over half of her shots were threes last season, and she made 89 of them, the most on the team. There is no clear heir to the sharpshooter role on the current squad, and there might not be all season. The Huskies will have to get more creative in order to put points on the board, and Lou’s essentially guaranteed production from deep is irreplaceable. As for additions, I have to go with freshman Aburey Griffin. She’s impressed both Geno and her teammates with her — for lack of a better word — freakish athleticism. She hustles hard, plays good defense — something the team desperately needs–and can just bring an element to this team that no one else can.
Predictions for the season:
Morrison: I’m going to be optimistic here: UConn will make the NCAA tournament. No, I don’t believe the Huskies have much of a chance to win the conference tournament and secure an auto-bid. Although I’m not sold on the all-freshman starting Memphis lineup, Houston and Cincinnati are both really good. I see UConn finishing fourth in the conference, picking up some quality nonconference wins along the way, and being firmly on the bubble come Selection Sunday. If recent history is any indication, a fourth-place finish in The American could certainly be good enough to grab an at-large bid, and therefore I think the Huskies, for the first time in four years, will be dancing in March.
Arnold: The main goal for this year’s edition of the Huskies is to win the conference championship. They bring a photo of the trophy wherever they go: team meetings, practices, meals, etc. That being said, it won’t be an easy task with defending conference champ Houston, Jarron Cumberland and Cincinnati and the No.1 recruiting class in Memphis standing in the way. Obviously winning The American would mean an auto-bid, but a few too many losses, especially with a tough out-of-conference schedule, could have the Huskies on the outside looking in come tournament time. With a plethora of priorities, it will come down to how big of a jump the team can make from Year 1 to Year 2 in Hurley’s rebuild.
Janos: Of course I expect a National Championship from a Geno-coached team! It feels like Crystal Dangerfield, the most electrifying guard I’ve ever seen come through Storrs since Kemba Walker, has the “it-factor” it takes to make a run in March. Though it won’t be in the completely dominant fashion that we saw in the Brianna Stewart era, I can see a run resembling that of Kemba’s 2011 men’s team. Both teams have a player with the last name Walker in their junior season… Can you say destiny? They may not get a No 1. seed, but no school is as magical as UConn in the month of March. Dangerfield, Walker, Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams remember the Final Four loss to Notre Dame last season. They won’t let themselves taste a bitter loss like that again.
Eckardt: I know no one wants to hear this, but it’s going to be a down year for the Huskies. They’re young, they’re inexperienced, they’re relatively bad on defense when compared to recent years and they lack real depth. As of right now, they’re planning on starting one freshman (Makurat) and two sophomores (Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams), and another freshman is likely the first one off the bench (Griffin). If Evina Westbrook’s appeal is successful and she is able to play (like it should be, but you can’t count on the NCAA to do anything right), it would be a huge addition, but as of right now they have to prepare as if she won’t be able to. While they will still likely go undefeated in The American, I could see them making the tournament as ~just~ a No. 2 seed, and potentially even being ousted by a strong No. 3 seed in the Elite Eight. If they make the Final Four, it’s going to be very hard for them to advance any farther. We should still be in store for a fun, exciting season like always, but it’s time to temper our expectations just a little bit.