– Final – pic.twitter.com/YULE3SFbOO
— UConn Men's Basketball (@UConnMBB) January 4, 2020
With a highly-anticipated return to the Big East looming next season, UConn knew that American opponents would be gunning for the Huskies this season on the way out. So far, UConn hasn’t looked anywhere near ready for that challenge. For the fourth-straight season, the Huskies begin their conference slate at 0-2.
After two straight losses to open conference play, a once-promising season has unraveled in front of our eyes for the UConn men’s basketball team. UConn (9-5, 0-2 The American) was defeated by USF on Saturday, 75-60, three days after losing to Cincinnati in the conference opener.
In Tampa, the Huskies fell victim to the same issues that have plagued them time and time again: no offensive identity, careless turnovers and several disappearing acts from the team’s most important contributors.
Freshman James Bouknight led the team with 11 points, six boards and three assists, while redshirt freshman Akok Akok had 10 points and four rebounds.
“[Bouknight] at least had the ability to compete athletically out there, he gave us some hope with just his talent,” head coach Dan Hurley told the Journal Inquirer’s Neill Ostrout after the game. “Akok’s our best player. If he’s not on the court, it hurts our defense. And it hurts our team because we have to put someone else in.”
But more revealing are the uglier stat lines from the veterans: Polley, 1-for-5; Gilbert, 1-for-3; Vital, 3-for-10; Carlton, 1-for-4. It’s nearly impossible to win when those four combine for 27% shooting, let alone when the team turns it over 17 times.
“We’re in a tough spot,” Hurley told Dave Borges of the New Haven Register. “It’s hard to play a lot of younger players in any good conference. Obviously, our core older players are struggling. There’s not a lot of direction for us at this point, coming out of the last two games we just played.”
After much talk after the Cincinnati loss of making some significant rotation changes, there were, er, minimal changes on Saturday. The starting five remained the same as it’s been all season (Vital, Gilbert, Polley, Akok, Carlton), and while Bouknight and Whaley saw some increased minutes, the leash wasn’t as short as Hurley had suggested. Freshman Jalen Gaffney was limited after reaggravating his ankle injury in practice.
The first half was back-and-forth until the final five minutes, when the Huskies simply crumbled. The Bulls (8-7, 1-1 The American) rattled off a 15-5 run to take a 27-22 lead. USF led by as many as 10 in the first half, and outside of a Gilbert desperation heave in the closing seconds, the UConn offense looked completely lost for the final third of the half.
Josh Carlton, who had just two points, zero boards and two turnovers, appears a completely different player than the one who earned AAC co-Most Improved Player from a year ago. His confidence has been erased, and he sat most of the second half in favor of Isaiah Whaley, who easily outplayed Carlton, scoring seven points and pulling in five boards.
But if the offense looked out-of-sorts before halftime, it only got worse in the second half. Missed layup after missed layup, paired with a lack of foul calls down low, led to a Hurley technical to push the USF lead to 12 with 15 minutes to play.
Although some full-court pressure temporarily sparked the Huskies offense late in the half, the Bulls never relinquished control. The loss brings UConn’s all-time record in The American to an even .500 (55-55). With the conference’s heavyweights — Memphis, Houston, Wichita State — still to come, the road certainly doesn’t get any easier from here.
It’ll be a long plane ride home, but fortunately, the Huskies won’t have long to hang their heads. UConn begins a two-game homestand on Wednesday, welcoming Tulane to Gampel Pavilion.