For the first time in four years, the UConn men’s basketball team will not finish the season with a losing record.
That much was confirmed in the Huskies’ convincing 81-65 victory over UCF on Wednesday, as UConn moves four games over .500 with only three games remaining in the regular season. At worst, with a first-round exit in the conference tournament, UConn will finish at an even .500 — avoiding a fourth-straight losing season.
In Storrs, that kind of modest accomplishment might not exactly be the kind you proudly display in the Gampel rafters. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
“It’s huge,” Hurley said after the game on halting the losing season streak. “Listen, this was a massive rebuild across the board. Just to show the progress, to get to seven conference wins after six all of last year and to avoid a losing season … We’ve shown real progress here, and it’s the next step that we’re taking.”
Hurley, of course, has an extensive track record of turning around programs. He took a 7-23 URI program and turned it into a back-to-back NCAA tournament team. Before that, he transformed a five-win Wagner team into a 25-6 success story. They don’t call him “The Carpenter” for nothing.
Dan Hurley. The Carpenter.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 27, 2020
“When you lose Tyler [Polley] to the ACL and you’re starting three freshmen — a couple weeks ago, we were wondering where the hell we were winning a couple games,” Hurley said, as UConn has now won five of seven. “Not only have we accumulated more wins, but we’ve had a chance to win five, six, seven more based on how we’ve played … We’re building a strong championship organization.”
One more win this season, whether in the regular season or postseason, will now secure a winning record for UConn (16-12, 7-8 The American). The last time that happened was the 2015-16 season, when the Huskies went 27-11. That year, after winning the conference championship, UConn pulled off an opening round win over Colorado in the big dance before falling to No. 1 seed Kansas. In the three full seasons since, UConn has a combined 46-52 record.
That means no one on the current roster has experienced a winning season, including senior Christian Vital and redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert, both of whom have labored through three years of losing. But as expected, Vital was unsatisfied with simply avoiding a losing season.
“I thought that was kinda expected at a program like this, so it’s good to get a win but we’ve got a lot of season left,” Vital said. “We just want to keep our season going, I mean obviously it’s meaningful, but this group is a different group … We truly believe and love each other, and we’re willing to dive on the floor, do the extra work to make sure the season keeps going.”
In his final game at the XL center, Vital fittingly did a bit of everything on Wednesday, dropping 18 points, seven boards, five assists and four steals. He checked out of the game to a raucous standing ovation from the crowd, partly thanks to his head coach pointing to him while egging on the crowd.
“He’s the example for next year’s team and for future teams I coach here, as an example of what current players need to do,” Hurley said. “The 180 he’s made in terms of his leadership — how he’s helped bring along younger players, how he’s adjusted his offensive approach … That’s gonna be his legacy here. Two, three years down the line when we win a championship, he’s gonna have his fingerprints on it.”
Gilbert, who has settled comfortably into a bench role, had five points and four assists without a turnover. He said he has not yet decided whether Wednesday’s game would be his last at XL, but he did say this season has been easily the most enjoyable one he’s had in a UConn jersey.
“Especially looking back at the last three years here, just for us to have a winning season is a big step for the program in the right direction,” Gilbert said. “We’re winning a lot more … especially at this time of the year, which is different than the past few years. Coach mentions it to us each and every day: ‘These games mean something.’”
It’s impossible to talk about the team’s success without mentioning the purely spectacular play from junior Isaiah Whaley as of late, particularly since the season-ending injury to Akok Akok earlier this month.
“His emergence has been huge,” Hurley said. “In recruiting, we’ll use him as an example of player development, no doubt … He’s just a selfless guy that you can win with. He’s like the greatest teammate in the world.”
Since Akok’s injury, Whaley’s numbers are simply staggering, especially given how minimal of a role he played prior: 12.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per game. He added another double-double to his resume on Wednesday, scoring 18 and pulling down 11 boards. He was mobbed by his teammates after the buzzer, further evidence that he has unified the team after a devastating injury to a beloved teammate.
“The first two years I was here, around this time, we weren’t playing for nothing, we were playing empty games,” Whaley said after the win. “This is the most positive vibes that we’ve had since I’ve been here. The first two years, it was really rough but everybody’s in good spirits right now. We’re actually playing meaningful games now, and it’s really fun.”