This decade of UConn men’s basketball, which came to a successful close in the Huskies’ 69-47 win over NJIT on Sunday, will be remembered primarily by the emergence of some of the best guards in program history: Walker, Napier, Lamb, Boatwright, Adams.
Entering this season, there seemed ample opportunity for two more names to be added to that list. With the departure of Jalen Adams, it was time for the veteran backcourt duo of Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital to take center stage.
On the surface, the spotlight hasn’t been kind to Gilbert and Vital. Although Gilbert has finally managed to stay healthy, he’s not even averaging double figures, shooting just 31% from the floor and 29% from deep. Vital’s points-per-game average and field goal percentage are the lowest they’ve been since his freshman year, while his turnover numbers have ballooned from 2.23 to nearly three a game.
“To be honest, I think I’ve sucked up to this point,” Vital admitted after the win. “I just haven’t made shots. I know what I did last year, being a 45/40% guy, and I put in work this summer to try to improve on that. So honestly, I feel like I’ve sucked up to this point.”
But offense is only half of the game of basketball, and those offensive numbers only tell half the story.
While struggling to score, Gilbert and Vital have turned themselves into nightmares on the defensive end, blanketing opposing guards under tenacious defense. If you’re looking to teach a young player how to guard on and off the ball, just show them this video:
“How to Play Defense” by Alterique Gilbert pic.twitter.com/YTq7voaHom
— Matt Zampini (@Matt_Zamp) December 19, 2019
Gilbert, who was mostly known as an offensive threat and an average defender at best when he arrived in Storrs, has transformed into a lockdown defender. His 1.42 steals per game is a career-high, though his defensive impact goes beyond numbers. In Sunday’s win, Gilbert shadowed NJIT’s lead scorer Zach Cooks for most of the afternoon, holding the prolific scorer well below his 23 ppg. Cooks finished with just 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting, and about half of those points were found in garbage time.
“It was one of those games where you tell Al, you’re going to expend so much energy on the defensive end, you’re not going to have a big offensive game when you guard someone of Cooks’ caliber,” Hurley said. “We did a great job of blowing up ball screens, aggressively flat and high on dribble handoffs. Al did a great job.”
Vital and Gilbert combined for five steals on Sunday, smothering the Highlanders backcourt all day. Head coach Dan Hurley said after the game that he got on those two at halftime, but was impressed by their response in the second half.
“Just sticking to the scouting report,” Gilbert said on the key to shutting down the NJIT attack. “Knowing what they want to do as a team, and then just paying attention to detail.”
Behind those two, the entire team has embraced a new identity as a defense-first unit. UConn is a top-25 team in the country in defensive efficiency, and has held opponents under 65 points in nine of 12 games this season.
“Start on defense, and let that create. That’s been my mindset going into every game,” Brendan Adams said. “Defense can get you involved in a game, if you feel like you’re not getting enough touches or you’re not active offensively, defense gets you involved to where your offense comes more naturally.”
Though the veterans have led the charge, it’s impossible to talk about the Huskies’ defensive prowess without mentioning Akok Akok, who erases shots with apparent ease. Akok had six blocks in Sunday’s win, and Adams said that having a player like Akok to clean things up behind you allows for greater on-ball pressure.
“He allows his talent to take over because he doesn’t think about himself — he’s not wrapped up in his numbers or his performance,” Hurley said on what makes Akok special. “He’s probably been close to, if not our best player, averaging seven points a game.”
And of course, there are nights when the shot is falling for the veteran guards. Gilbert entered Sunday coming off a 21-point outburst against New Hampshire, and Vital took things over against NJIT, pouring in 23 points on 8-of-15 from the field. But with this team’s depth, the Huskies are built to survive nights when neither have it working offensively, especially when they’re engaged on the defensive end.