Through six conference games, the UConn men’s basketball team has one win. One.
The Huskies have lost four in a row. The competition has been tough, sure. There have been more than a few devastatingly close losses. But there’s no getting around the fact that it’s been a nightmarish start to conference play for UConn — the worst since it joined the conference.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team go through a four-game stretch like this,” head coach Dan Hurley said after Sunday’s loss. “It’s been a brutal-ass period.”
The good news is that UConn (10-9, 1-5 The American) gets to return home on Wednesday, considering the Huskies remain winless (0-4) in true road games this season. Since Hurley arrived at UConn, his teams have gone just 5-18 away from home. By comparison, UConn has five wins at Gampel Pavilion this season alone.
The other good news is that Temple (10-9, 2-5 The American) is weaker, on paper at least, than any team the Huskies have faced during the current four-game losing streak. But the Owls come in equally hungry for a win, having dropped all three contests since their upset victory over then-No. 16 Wichita State.
If the Huskies hope to come away with a win, it’ll need to happen on the defensive end. Temple has the second-lowest scoring offense in the conference (67.9 points per game) while UConn has quietly transformed into one of the strongest defensive teams in the country, sitting at No. 34 nationally in defensive efficiency.
Shutting down the Owl offense begins with silencing the two-headed beast of the Temple backcourt, senior Quinton Rose and junior Nate Pierre-Louis, who combine for over 26 a game. Rose has the third-most career points in the history of The American, trailing former UConn guard Jalen Adams by 61 points for second place.
Temple is led by first-year head coach Aaron McKie, who took over for long-time coach Fran Dunphy after last season. McKie played at Temple and served as an assistant coach for five seasons before taking the helm this year.
On the UConn side of things, the loss of sharpshooter Tyler Polley has had an even larger impact than feared, as the Huskies’ floor spacing and long range shooting has crumbled since his season-ending injury. UConn is just 20 for 83, or 24%, from 3-point land during the four-game slide.
Most of the team’s veterans have been either ineffective or nonexistent, especially the backcourt duo of Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert, who figured to be the team’s leading scorers this season. Vital and Gilbert combined to shoot 5-for-22 in the overtime defeat to Tulsa, including 1-of-13 from beyond the arc.
“Five-for-22 with those guys, we won’t win many more games this year if they don’t play better,” Hurley said after Sunday’s loss. “If your freshmen are your best players in a game against a 5-1 conference opponent, it’s gonna be hard to win.”
Junior Josh Carlton has also seen his minutes dwindle, and it’s not exactly hard to see why. Carlton has been held scoreless in back-to-back games, mostly due to tentative finishing at the rim, and has had numerous inexcusable lapses on the defensive end. Isaiah Whaley, when not in foul trouble, has provided a lift off the bench, but UConn needs Carlton, the reigning Most Improved Player of The American, to start playing like it.
“He’s had a rough stretch, a lot of this game is mental. But in a game like that, where you’re trying to beat a 5-1 team, you’ve had three excruciating losses … it was disheartening,” Hurley said about Carlton’s performance on Sunday. “We got our ass kicked at center … but it’s also my fault. I’ve got to figure out a way.”
The only reason that UConn has managed to stay competitive in the midst of the upperclassmen struggles has been the stellar play of the new guys. Akok Akok was the best player in a UConn uniform on Sunday, blocking seven(!) shots with 13 points. James Bouknight, who had a team-high 16, continues to thrive as the Huskies’ best pure scorer. Jalen Gaffney has really come on as of late, earning crunch time minutes on Sunday over Gilbert.
“We’ve got to just move on and play,” Bouknight said after Sunday’s defeat. “We can’t stay down too long and we can’t sulk.”
Wednesday’s game begins at 7 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion.