With dreams of the Big East on the horizon, the UConn men will play their final home game in The American when they host No. 21 Houston Thursday on Senior Night.
Though Christian Vital is the only true senior on scholarship, UConn will honor five others alongside The American’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers: Redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert, walk-on Temi Aiyegbusi, student assistant coach Mamadou Diarra and team managers Paul Wettemann and Justin Eaddy.
“When we look back down the line here and we’re accomplishing great things here, this is the foundation,” Dan Hurley said Wednesday afternoon. “These guys laid the foundation; Christian, Alterique if in fact he is not back to play again in a UConn uniform beyond this year, and senior managers. The way that they’ve battled the character and the culture that they’ve helped us establish. Al’s a huge part of that, Christian’s a huge part of that.”
Gilbert’s fourth year has not gone as he had planned. After a slow start to the season he lost his starting spot to freshman Jalen Gaffney. Hurley has done nothing but praise the veteran for the way he’s handled the situation and remained a leader, but acknowledges Gilbert has a decision to make come season’s end, with another year of eligibility remaining.
“He has a number of options at the end of this year and we just wanted to make sure he got the proper send off in case this is his last home game,” Hurley said.
Gilbert has been dealing with back spasms since the Huskies’ (17-12, 8-8 The American) 21-point rout of the ECU Pirates last weekend, leaving him as a game-time decision after not practicing the last two days. With Sid Wilson out indefinitely due to suspension, UConn very well may take the floor with only six scholarship players, but that doesn’t bother Hurley.
“You have to earn the right to wear a UConn uniform,” Hurley said. “To wear that on game night, to represent the state of Connecticut, to represent the storied basketball programs of this place. Just because we may only have six guys if Al can’t go, I’m not just throwing Sid Wilson out there or any player. You have to earn the right to wear the uniform at a place like this or any place that I coach.”
A short-handed Huskies team may spell trouble against the No. 21 team in the latest AP poll. The Cougars (22-7, 12-4 The American) won by four when they hosted UConn back in January. In the final minutes, Hurley was not allowed to sub in Josh Carlton for Aiyegbusi, who ended up with the ball in his hands for the game-tying shot, which he missed. Hurley said the lack of knowledge of the rule (Carlton should have been allowed to enter the game) left him a bit “bitter,” while Aiyegbusi was grateful for the opportunity.
“To be able to say in my four years here I played versus a top 25 team on national television and I was in that position in the first place, like, not too many people in my position are able to say something like that in life,” Aiyegbusi said. “So I was very grateful for the experience.”
Caleb Mills scored 20 off the bench in that game to help secure Houston’s fourth-consecutive win over UConn. DeJon Jarreau tied Isaiah Whaley with 11 rebounds and dished out a game-high eight assists. Since then, the Cougars have won seven of their last 10 and currently sit tied-for-first in the conference standings.
“I don’t think it’s ever good to play Houston,” Hurley said. “They’ve been the class of the league. They have the type of team and program right now, the way they show up and the type of success they have and what they’ve put on film, they’re the barometer of this conference.”
“We have to play incredibly well to beat a team of this caliber,” he added in anticipation of a physical game.
Mills remains the top scorer for Houston with 13.3 points per game. Nate Hinton, a sophomore, grabs a team-best nine rebounds a game while Jarreau’s average of 3.8 assists leads the way.
“Be ourselves,” Vital, the reigning conference Player of the Week, said of Thursday’s gameplan. “Just keep doing what we’ve been doing. Play hard on defense, rebounding, sharing the ball and making shots. That helps.”
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Whaley has been heavily relied on since he was inserted into the starting lineup and that will not change come Thursday night. In his four games as a starter, Whaley is averaging 15 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting 64.7% from the floor.
James Bouknight, the only player not named Vital to average double-digit points (13.0) has been a force of late. He threw down a vicious dunk last time out to complete a freshman-to-freshman alley-oop and is scoring nearly 16 points a game against conference opponents. The Huskies, winners of four of their last five games, seem to be clicking at the right time with the conference tournament just two games away.
“They’re aware that we’re playing in a meaningful game that could get us a better seed in the conference tournament and just continue to build on what’s been a much better season for this program than we’ve had recently,” Hurley said.
Vital, who is glad a top-25 team will be on the floor for his final home game, still has his sight on a postseason tournament and no, not the NIT.
“Not whatever tournament, the NCAA tournament,” Vital said on his goal. “You don’t play to go to the NIT or anywhere else. It’ll mean everything. I haven’t played there, the school hasn’t been there since I’ve been here, so that’s the way I kinda want to pay back for my time, just help the young guys get to the tournament because I know what it’s like to not be in it.”
The Huskies and Cougars are expected to tip off at 7 p.m. Thursday in front of a near sold-out crowd. The game will be aired on CBS Sports Network.