Just three games into the season and the UConn men’s basketball team will have their character tested when No. 15 Florida visits Gampel Pavilion Sunday afternoon.
The Huskies are fresh off a disappointing 96-87 home loss to St. Joseph’s on Wednesday, but there’s no time to sulk. Christian Vital said the team has “no choice” but to move on.
“We have no choice but to,” Vital said after the game. “We got a great team coming into our place. We got to bounce back, we got to move on. Only thing we can take from this is a learning lesson. We can’t stay in the moment, the game is over. We just got to move on as a unit.”
Slow, low energy first halves have been a theme in the first two contests for the Huskies. Thanks to a career night from Brendan Adams, a jolt of energy from Sid Wilson and a plethora of Pioneer turnovers, UConn (1-1) was able to overcome its lacking first half against Sacred Heart.
The same could not be said when the sharpshooting St. Joseph Hawks jumped out to a 14-0 lead. The Huskies fought back and managed to make it a one-possession game late, but a few miscues cemented an embarrassing loss.
The most inspiring performance came from one of the new faces. Akok Akok was an efficient 4-for-5 from the floor, made both of his attempts from beyond the arc and earned high remarks from his coach postgame. The redshirt freshman grabbed nine boards and blocked three shots.
Though he has plenty of growing still to do, Hurley said Akok was not part of the “defensive meltdowns.” The 6-foot-9 big man isn’t hanging his hat on his individual performance, however, and is ready to focus on Sunday’s challenge.
“Big game on Sunday,” Akok said. “We got to put all of our focus into Florida and hopefully we come out with a different game than tonight.”
As for the Gators (1-1), they entered the year ranked No. 6 in the country. After beating up on North Florida to open the year, they suffered a loss to in-state rival Florida State that dropped them nine spots to No. 15.
Kerry Blackshear Jr., a 6-foot-10 graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, has been a force to be reckoned with to open the season. Through two games he’s averaging 34 minutes a contest and has shot 50% from the floor. His 30 total points leads the team, but he was held scoreless from the field against FSU as he cashed in his 10 points from the free throw line.
Keyontae Johnson was the only other Gator to reach double-digit points in the loss to FSU. He scored 19 points and shot 75% from the field. On the young season, the sophomore forward is averaging 13 points per game and more than five rebounds a contest.
Unlike St. Joseph’s, this Florida team is not dangerous from 3-point range. They’ve taken 37 and only made seven, good enough for 18.9%. In comparison, UConn is shooting almost 40% from beyond the arc on 19-of-48 shooting.
Expect the Huskies to get challenged down low and around the rim against a Gators team with only one player shorter than 6-foot-3. It’ll be a big test for Josh Carlton and Akok, as well as Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley and even Wilson. Rebounding was a concern in the opener that was somewhat addressed in Game 2, but can be a problem on Sunday if the Huskies aren’t aggressive early.
Year 2 for Hurley has not gotten off to an ideal start. His team lacks enthusiasm and hustle, two pillars of what he preaches as well as practices. He said it feels like his team is carrying the “burden” of the last few years of losing instead of trying to change it. They’ll have as good a chance as any to change that come Sunday afternoon.
Tip off is set for 3 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion. The expected sold-out crowd is urged to dress in white as a part of a White Out. “Growl Towels” will be handed out on a first-come-first-serve basis and the UConn drumline will perform at halftime. ESPN will broadcast the game.