Coming into the season, if you had told head coach Dan Hurley that three starters — Akok Akok, Alterique Gilbert and Tyler Polley — would all be out of the starting lineup by mid-February, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.
But due to season-ending injuries to two and inconsistent play from the third, that’s likely the scenario Hurley faces as UConn (14-11, 5-7 The American) travels to Philadelphia for a rematch with Temple (13-12, 5-7) on Thursday.
An MRI performed on Monday confirmed UConn’s worst fears, revealing a completely ruptured Achilles tendon for redshirt freshman Akok Akok. Surgery to repair the damage was successfully completed on Tuesday evening, spelling the end of Akok’s season and, given the nine to 12 month recovery timetable typically required, likely a sizable portion of next season as well.
Despite undergoing surgery just the day prior, Akok arrived at practice on Wednesday and was immediately swarmed by teammates with hugs and smiles. Numerous teammates, including Polley and James Bouknight, posted heartfelt messages to Akok on social media this week.
— UConn Men's Basketball (@UConnMBB) February 19, 2020
“Sometimes I question why the worst things happen to the best people,” Bouknight wrote in an Instagram post. “When you came to my room and asked if you would come back and be the same player I had to look to the floor trying to fight back tears … I promise you’ll bounce back and be stronger and better than ever … We’re going to be great together!!!”
View this post on Instagram
Things like this should never be able to happen to a person like you. Sometimes I question why the worst things happen to the best people. When you came to my room and asked if you would come back and be the same player I had to look to the floor trying to fight back tears. Being around you, your sense of humor, how hard working you are motivates me and pushes me to better myself. Im praying for the most successful surgery and I cannot wait to see you back on the court doing what you dedicate your entire life to. I’m here for whatever you need and I promise you’ll bounce back and be stronger and better than ever. We’re gonna be able to do what we always talk about… we’re going to be great together!!! Love you @akok.23 ❤️💪🏼
In response, Akok commented, “Love u too my brother, hope we share the court again.”
Hurley was in tears after Sunday’s inspiring victory over Memphis, saying, “You have no idea how close these kids are with each other, with the coaches. It’s a family.”
That family now has to move on without the conference’s leading shot blocker and Akok’s reserved, calming presence. Although he was searching for his shot as of late (2.3 points per game in his last four complete games), Akok’s ability to block and alter shots at the rim was a game-changing component of UConn’s defense.
Although we don’t know who will take Akok’s place in Thursday’s starting lineup, junior Isaiah Whaley certainly looked like starting material on Sunday. Whaley, who has been superb all season backing up forward Josh Carlton, had seven rebounds and a career-high six blocks against Memphis, including two massive swats in the final minutes.
Last time the Huskies squared off with Temple, they snapped a four-game losing streak with a dominant 78-63 victory at Gampel Pavilion. It was an ugly shooting performance on both sides, but UConn held the dangerous Owls backcourt duo of Quinton Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis to a combined 12-of-32 performance from the field and never trailed in the second half.
This time around, UConn comes in from a very different position — fresh off the win of the season rather than a four-game slide. But the stakes are certainly higher than the first meeting, as UConn and Temple sit tied at seventh place in the American Athletic Conference standings. With six games remaining in the regular season, every game matters for tournament seeding, especially with tightly-packed middle of the conference standings.
On one side of the coin, the Huskies are just 1-7 on the road this season and just 2-6 all-time at Temple. On the other, UConn has won three of its last four, while the Owls are coming off a 20-point blowout loss at home to Villanova.
The game can be found on ESPN2, tipping off from the Liacouras Center at 7 p.m.