After a home opener featuring some “indescribably bad” rebounding and a complete lack of emotion and swagger according to head coach Dan Hurley, the UConn men’s basketball team returns to Gampel Pavilion on Wednesday night looking to restore some confidence.
With all that said, the Huskies (1-0) did pull out a win on opening night, pulling away from Sacred Heart in the second half to come away with an 89-67 victory. But it was far from an inspiring performance, as UConn was outrebounded 28-13 in the first half. If not for the Pioneers’ 14 first half turnovers, it’s not hard to imagine the Huskies staring at a halftime deficit instead of a three-point lead.
UConn’s starting frontcourt, Josh Carlton and Akok Akok, combined for just 12 rebounds in the game. Though Carlton got it going offensively in the second half, scoring 14 of his 18 points after halftime, his rebounding remains a question mark as the starting center.
Wednesday’s opponent is Saint Joseph’s (1-1), a team that has been outrebounded in both of its games so far against Old Dominion and Bradley. No player in the SJU starting five is below 6-foot-5, including a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards in Taylor Funk and Lorenzo Edwards, but the Hawks do not have anyone as tall as the 6-foot-11 Carlton.
Instead, Saint Joseph’s relies heavily on 3-point shooting across the board, including its frontcourt. Edwards has made more 3’s (seven) than any other player on the roster. Though this will certainly take some pressure off rebounding, Hurley told the media on Tuesday that Saint Joseph’s presents somewhat of a “matchup nightmare,” given how well they stretch the floor. Carlton will be forced out of his comfort zone as a paint-roaming center and will have to defend the perimeter as well.
That is not to say that rebounding has not been a point of emphasis in practice this week.
“The film session was a tough one for the guys to sit through,” Hurley said. “We analyzed every shot off the glass … and it wasn’t just the defensive glass. On the offensive glass, we’re not making anywhere near the effort we need to make to create extra possessions.”
Saint Joseph’s is coming off an 82-69 loss at the hands of Old Dominion, allowing the Monarchs to score 17 of the final 21 points. Despite the loss, Edwards had a career-high 23 on the night, and do-it-all guard Ryan Daly fell two points shy of a triple-double. Although on the surface, the Hawks appear to be another soft opponent before Sunday’s highly anticipated bout with No. 15 Florida, it’ll be far from automatic.
Ask Hurley, and it certainly seems like he believes the rebounding issues are part of a larger underlying problem with the team’s energy and resiliency.
“I just thought our spirit, in terms of the overall group, just thought we’d be a lot more emotional, a lot more joyful, a lot more excited,” Hurley said after Friday’s opener. “I wish the team would take on [Christian Vital’s] personality, the toughness, the self-belief. That’s gotta run through the team, we need to have a collective swagger about us that players at UConn should have.”
Vital and sophomore Brendan Adams were the lone bright spots in the opener, according to Hurley. Adams provided a huge lift off the bench, scoring 15 on 5-of-8 shooting. Despite a first half in which Vital did not make a shot, he finished with 17 points and, more importantly to his head coach, was highly engaged on the defensive end, snatching a career-high seven steals. But after the game, Hurley called Vital’s effort an “outlier” on the team.
If history is any indication, perhaps Saint Joseph’s is the perfect opponent for UConn to face. The last time the two programs met was in the first round of the 2014 NCAA tournament, where the Huskies pulled out a thrilling 89-81 overtime victory. In case you haven’t heard, UConn would go on to win its next five games, claiming the fourth national championship in program history.
Whether the rebounding issues and energy levels are separate or one a product of the other, Hurley will certainly expect an improved mindset in Wednesday’s contest. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Gampel and will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.