Not too long ago, declaring UConn the “basketball capital of the world” certainly had some legitimacy to it. Nowadays, it mostly evokes smirks and sarcasm. Head coach Dan Hurley, in his second year at the helm, is determined to restore UConn’s basketball greatness.
“As a program, we’re just in a better place [than a year ago]. We’re rebuilding a championship program that had fallen quite a bit from the top of the mountain,” Hurley told the media on Thursday. “While at the same time, we have some older players that we feel like, and they feel like, are good enough to compete at the top [of] the league and potentially compete for postseason.”
That journey begins tonight as UConn hosts Sacred Heart at Gampel Pavilion, kicking off the 2019-20 men’s basketball season, the final for UConn in the American Athletic Conference. The Huskies look to improve on an injury-riddled but promising 2018-19 campaign in which the team went 16-17 overall, including just 6-12 in conference play.
Hurley has made a habit of superb Year 2 turnarounds, nearly doubling his win totals from Year 1 to 2 at both Wagner and Rhode Island. But when asked for his expectations for the season, Hurley was cautious to give a prediction.
“It’s Year 2, but you just don’t know how your team is going to respond. When the lights come on, are we gonna have enough guys to take that jump?” Hurley said. “If every guy gives us his best and has a killer instinct, a warrior mentality, and we get that losing stench out of our bones, there’s some upside to this team. But no one’s proven it, and that’s what makes you not sleep so well.”
One player who Hurley said needs to take that jump is redshirt junior guard Alterique Gilbert, who averaged 13 points and a team-high 3.8 assists last season. Gilbert has teetered on the edge of stardom for much of his UConn career but has been frequently derailed by shoulder injuries. On Thursday, unlike his coach, Gilbert didn’t shy away from setting a high bar for the team.
“At least making the NCAA tournament, at least,” Gilbert said about what he considers a successful season. “We just wanna prove we’re a winning program and uphold the winning tradition here.”
It will be the final home opener for senior guard Christian Vital, who will be expected to shoulder much of the scoring and leadership responsibilities after the departure of Jalen Adams. When asked for his goals in his final season, Vital aimed even higher than his teammate.
“There are small ones, just growing, just trying to have a better year than last year. But to be honest, the only way to make it successful is to add another one,” Vital said, glancing up at the four championship banners hanging in UConn’s practice facility. “After these three years, I think it would only be fitting. But I understand you have to take it a day at a time, there are a lot of other people trying to get that as well, and you just have to stay as a group through the ups and downs.”
Unfortunately, it’s been more downs than ups for freshman James Bouknight, who was charged in an on-campus “vehicular incident” last month. On Thursday, Hurley announced that Bouknight has been suspended for the first three games of the season, which includes UConn’s most highly-anticipated game on the schedule, a meeting with No. 6 Florida at Gampel.
“It’s been a rough month, and it’s not over for him,” Hurley said. “It’s a dream for him to come and play at UConn that’s turned nightmarish for him in the last month. But the story of his career I believe will be about championships and rebuilding his reputation, changing the narrative that’s currently associated with the start of his career.”
Though Bouknight will have to wait for his opportunity, fellow newcomer Akok Akok will not, and in fact will likely get the starting nod on Friday night. Akok had an inconsistent showing offensively in last week’s exhibition, scoring nine on 3-of-7 shooting, but already looked like a force on the defensive end, blocking four shots in emphatic fashion.
“I’ve been waiting for tonight for over a year, I’m very excited … and when I’m excited, I play way better,” Akok, who redshirted last season after joining the team in January, said. “This is a moment I’ve been waiting for since January, every single night, all those practices and workouts, I’ve been praying for this moment. Now that it’s here, I’m blessed.”
Talking to Akok on Thursday, his eagerness to play for UConn was palpable, a wide grin emerging on his face whenever asked about his long-awaited debut. He even joked about his over-anxiousness in the exhibition, when he nearly ran out of the tunnel too early.
But that kind of energy is exactly what Hurley needs to see from the Huskies this season, restoring the confidence and prestige of the UConn basketball brand.
“My biggest frustration with this team is that — they’re very hard-working, they’re all great guys — but I want more of that swagger, that confidence that comes with being a basketball player at UConn,” Hurley said. “I don’t know if that’s just been beaten out of these guys because the losing sets in and you start wearing it like a shirt, but you gotta be a ruthless killer out there.”
“Like today, my energy level was off the charts,” Hurley continued. “I could feel the electricity through my body with the game tomorrow, I almost feel like Frankenstein where the lightning struck and the bolts in my neck. I wanna be in a huddle where everyone looks like that, and we’re not there yet. But maybe lightning will hit the top of the dorm tonight.”
Though there was no lightning last night, Gampel Pavilion will certainly be electric tonight as another basketball season tips off in the basketball capital of the world.
Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. He tweets @asmor24.