With a three-game homestand now under its belt, the UConn men’s basketball team will head south for the weekend to participate in the Charleston Classic.
The Huskies are fresh off a tumultuous week at Gampel Pavilion. As 14-point favorites, they lost to St. Joseph’s last Wednesday, but took a big step forward with a 62-59 win over then-No. 15 Florida on Sunday. From “wake-up call” to “we’re awake,” UConn will take some extra confidence into South Carolina.
“I think just with this, this is a really good win for us,” Christian Vital said after Sunday’s win. “I think this is going to give us a lot of momentum, a lot of positive vibes, just going out there knowing that a championship is on our mind and nothing less.”
Vital, a senior guard, has been the most consistent Husky in the early going. In his 101 minutes on the floor, he’s averaging 19.3 points and, at 6-foot-2, a team-high nine rebounds per contest. Named to the AAC weekly honor roll, Vital will look to his backcourt mate, Alterique Gilbert, for some support.
Gilbert has struggled early, shooting just 24.4% from the field and 3-for-13 in the win over Florida. Head coach Dan Hurley has praised the redshirt junior’s leadership alongside Vital, especially leading up to Sunday’s game. Repeatedly touted “a warrior” by his head coach, Gilbert will look to get going offensively, though he does have a team-best 11 assists.
Hurley said he was looking for an infusion of youth following the St. Joe’s loss and he’s about to get some help. Freshman James Bouknight is set to return from his 3-game suspension following a on-campus vehicular incident that involved UConn police. He has since been accepted into the accelerated rehabilitation program after appearing at Rockville Superior Court.
Bouknight will join classmates Jalen Gaffney and Akok Akok on the court and look to spark some offense. Gaffney has struggled so far and has yet to score, but Akok has played valuable minutes as a starter. The redshirt freshman is third on the team in rebounding (seven per game) and leads the pack by a large margin in blocks with nine, but is scoring at a 5.3 point per game clip.
Though it may not be how he envisioned it, Hurley’s squad is 2-1 heading into the Charleston Classic. In a tournament of eight teams, the Buffalo Bulls are first in line. Unlike Florida, Buffalo is not ranked in the top-25, but that won’t affect the way the team prepares.
“We’re going to be going in there obviously treating the Buffalo game like they’re one of the best teams we’re going to play on our schedule, but now we’re going in there with some confidence and going in there with a little bit of pep in our step and self belief,” Hurley said. “Obviously one game at a time, but we’re going in there trying to win it.”
A season ago, the Bulls were winners of 32 games and the MAC championship. They won their first game in the NCAA tournament too, before taking a 20-point, second round loss to Texas Tech. Three games into the new season and Buffalo is also 2-1, with their most recent win coming over Harvard in the James Naismith Classic in Canada.
Size-wise, the Bulls and Huskies matchup well with center Brock Bertram matching Josh Carlton’s 6-foot-11 frame, though Carlton has him beat by almost 20 pounds. The size translates to the court as each team has 126 rebounds, good enough for 42 per game. Sophomore forward Josh Mballa’s 7.7 boards per game is the top mark amongst the Bulls.
Buffalo is a much better shooting team than Florida, especially from beyond the arc. As a team, the Bulls are shooting 45.7% from the floor and 42.4% from 3-point range. With an emphasis on 3-point defense, expect Ronaldo Segu to be a target for the UConn defense. The sophomore is shooting an absurd 64.3% from deep and 70% from the field. His 14.3 points per game mark is second-best on the team.
The ninth matchup between the schools and the first since 2008, will tip off at 9 p.m. tonight. A win would be the Huskies’ fourth-straight over the Bulls and advance them to the second round of the tournament on Friday night. A trip to the tournament’s championship would mean a Sunday night game. A loss will put them in the losers bracket, with games on the same days as the winners.