After losing two starting players to season-ending injuries, the UConn men are in a position that even they weren’t sure they could be in: winners of five of their last seven games. They have an opportunity to extend the trend when they visit the ECU Pirates on Saturday.
“When you lose Tyler [Polley] to the ACL and you start three freshmen, a couple weeks ago we were wondering where the hell we’d win a couple games,” head coach Dan Hurley said after Wednesday’s win over UCF. “We’ve shown real progress here and it’s the next step that we’re taking.”
UConn (16-12, 7-8 The American) is playing cohesive basketball and having fun with it. Christian Vital has been in the center of the mix, as expected, but the emergence of veteran forward Isaiah Whaley and freshman guard James Bouknight has proven crucial to the Huskies’ progress.
In the waning moments following Akok Akok’s ruptured Achilles tendon against Memphis, Whaley stepped in and proved he could hold down the fort with five points and six blocks. In his three starts since, the Gastonia, North Carolina native has scored a career-high 18 points, twice, recorded two double-doubles and is playing more minutes (35.67) than he has in his career.
“I’m pretty confident right now,” Whaley said on his recent play. “I mean the coaches are confident in me, that’s what gives me a lot of confidence. I’m just trying to continue to help the team.”
Without Akok, Hurley’s lineups have been limited in size. UConn is either playing with two bigs on the floor or four guards at any given moment. Most commonly, it’s been a combination of Vital, Bouknight, Whaley, Jalen Gaffney and Brendan Adams. That group has been together for 70 possessions and is shooting 51.1% from the floor, 72.7% at the rim, 45.5% from beyond the arc while turning the ball over just 11% of the time. Stretch those numbers over 100 possessions and you’re looking at a tick more than 141 points.
“It’s just the game of basketball,” Adams said after last Sunday’s win over USF. “A lot of times they’re playing four guards too so we’re just matching up.”
Bouknight has been a beneficiary of the small-ball lineup. Though he was limited to 16 minutes thanks to fouls against the Bulls, the young guard is averaging 17 points over the last three games and is making 50% of his three-pointers. UConn has surpassed it’s scoring average (72 ppg) in each of those three games.
Vital, the lone, true senior on the Huskies’ squad has made strides on the court and as a leader of the last month and a half, according to his coach. Now ranked 12th on UConn’s all-time scoring list, Vital made a season-high eight shots on 15 attempts against USF and has scored 20 or more points in three of the last four games. Described as more Marcus Smart than Damian Lillard by Hurley, he’s averaging 7.5 rebounds and nearly three steals per contest over the same stretch.
“He becomes an example for next year’s team and for future guys that I coach here,” Hurley said. “The 180 he’s made in terms of his leadership, how he’s helped bring along the younger players, how he’s adjusted his offensive approach.There’s more wins out there for us, but his legacy here is not just a guy who accumulated stats, but i think you’ll look two, three years down the line when we win a championship and he’s going to have his fingerprints on it.”
Before that championship comes, the Huskies have a date with the Pirates (11-18, 5-11 The American) and will look to extend their winning streak to five games over ECU.
UConn sits seventh in the conference and boasts the sixth-best offense. Losers of four of its last five, ECU is only ahead of Tulane in The American standings and scores 68.5 points per contest — tenth best in the conference.
Sophomore Jayden Gardner captains the ship for ECU with 20 points per game and nearly 10 rebounds to match. Tristen Newton, a rookie, dishes out 3.6 assists a game and takes the ball more than once a game (1.2 steals per game) — both stats lead the team.
The Huskies won 82-73 over the Pirates last season on the road. Josh Carlton dropped 20 points and 11 rebounds and could use the familiar backdrop as a spark for a big performance. Carlton hasn’t scored double-digit points since Jan. 29 and hasn’t eclipsed more than 14 minutes in a game since the win over Memphis almost two weeks ago.
Tipoff is slated for 2 p.m. on Saturday from Minges Coliseum in Greenville, North Carolina and ESPNU will have the televised broadcast.