The last time the Huskies played a midweek game at Gampel Pavilion, they left with their heads hung low and a 96-87 blemish on their record. With the Iona Gaels coming to town this Wednesday, the UConn men will look to not let history repeat itself.
A main contributor to that loss was a lethargic start out of the gate. The Huskies shot 30.6% from the floor and entered the locker room trailing by 16. Slow starts have been a common theme in the early going, but head coach Dan Hurley isn’t worried just yet.
“We’re still trying to become a good team,” Hurley said. “I don’t think we’re at the point as a program where like you start looking into bad starts to a half. Trying to go from being a bad team the last couple of years to a good team. In order to do that you have to be consistent… Just as a program we’re still immature. We’re better. We’re more talented. We’re trending in the right direction, but it takes time to be consistently good.”
Akok Akok has found himself in the center of that upward trend. The redshirt-freshman has started every game for the Huskies (5-2) this season and is averaging nearly six rebounds a game. His 20 blocks are the most in the conference and ranks 22nd in the nation.
“[Akok’s] helped change our whole defensive identity,” Hurley said. “Of all the new guys, Akok is the main reason we’re trending in the right direction because of the energy level he plays with, how he’s allowed our defense to get better just with his length. He’s a game changer on the court.”
Akok, along with fellow first-year players Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight, have found themselves in the mix of Hurley’s 10-man rotation. With depth as a strength, Hurley’s squad has been able to attack teams defensively and play a fast-paced style on offense. Christian Vital, the team’s leading scorer (14.6) and rebounder (8.1), is tied for seventh in the country in total steals (23) and is on pace to shatter his career-high of 50.
“When you feel like you have 10 guys that you’re confident you can put in the game, it allows you to really get after people defensively,” Hurley said. “Force more turnovers, apply more pressure, push the ball up the court quicker.”
With Sidney Wilson expected to return from a knee injury he suffered against Miami, that rotation only becomes deeper.
As for the Gaels (2-2), they haven’t played since a Nov. 23 75-52 win over Kennesaw State. They were voted as the preseason favorites to win the MAAC and go to the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in eight years. For that reason, Hurley sees a similarity to a previous UConn opponent: Buffalo.
Iona plays a 2-3 zone defense, but has shown the ability to play a matchup zone as well as man-to-man. UConn scored a quick 11 points when Maine opened the game in a 2-3 zone, but was held to 64 points overall, 12 below its season average. Iona is averaging 64.5 points allowed per game this year.
E.J. Crawford, a Hartford native, will make a return home Wednesday night. Standing at 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, Hurley called Crawford a “matchup nightmare,” as he can play a number of positions, primarily the three and the four. Through four games he is averaging 15.3 points per contest and five rebounds for the Gaels.
On the perimeter, Iona features a talented junior guard tandem in Asante Gist and Isaiah Washington. They combine for 15 points a game and are the top-two playmakers on the team with 17 assists and 14 assists respectively.
Tajuan Agee will test the UConn big men who were mostly quiet in the win over Maine. At 6-foot-9 and with the ability to shoot the 3-ball (4-for-5 on the year), he draws similarities to Akok, but carries a 30-pound weight advantage. Agee, a senior, leads the Gaels in scoring (17) and rebounds (nine) but Akok said he’s ready for the challenge.
“They’re a scrappy team,” Akok said. “They play down to the wire. It’s going to be a dogfight. We just got to come in with the right mindset.”
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion and the game will be televised by SNY.