They came to Storrs in a class of five.
The future of UConn looked bright: two years removed from a National Title, a program alum running the show and five top-100 recruits on their way.
But a lot can happen over four years. There were injuries and there were transfers. There was the first losing season since Jim Calhoun came to town, one of three in a row. All that can stack up against a program, deter those involved from pushing forward and warn others from climbing aboard.
But Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert chose to ride it out. They watched classmates Juwan Durham and Vance Jackson find homes elsewhere. They watched Mamadou Diarra fight and battle through knee injuries before deciding to join the coaching staff. For Gilbert, it was a pair of season-ending shoulder surgeries. For Vital, it was learning to trust the process and a new coach.
“That’s my boy,” Vital said of Gilbert. “He’s been through a lot. He came in a McDonald’s All-American, highly touted. Went through some injuries, but he persevered. I learned a lot from Al. just how to persevere. How to face adversity head-on. It’s gonna hit you sometimes, you’re gonna have hard times. It’s never going to be just perfect straight through, but the way he played tonight, that’s the Al I know.”
Vital even teased the idea of moving on from UConn after 2016, but “the grass isn’t always greener.” Following his sophomore campaign Vital tested the NBA waters, but he came back. There was some doubt that he wouldn’t return for his senior year –– after all, he and Dan Hurley did not always see eye-to-eye and he was even benched for a while –– but again, he came back.
“There were times last year I wasn’t sure if we could co-exist,” Hurley said. “But man, that’s the joy of coaching, to see a young man just change and mature and develop into a great player.”
“It wasn’t always the best times with me and him, but one thing about each other that we understand and respect that we’re resilient, we wanna win and we’re competitive,” Vital said on his relationship with Hurley. “I think once we found each other’s spots and started to understand each other a little bit more, we started to put it together.”
Like a marriage, Vital and Gilbert stayed committed through it all. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. The poorest of times began when the Huskies, who entered the season the No. 18 team in the country, lost to Wagner in 2016. Then there was the 35-point loss to Arkansas in the PK80 the next year and losses to Villanova in consecutive seasons. Even this year there was doubt, like after the loss to St. Joes at Gampel.
There was a dull sickness over the program that had every diehard fan infected, wondering how it could happen to a school that calls itself “The Basketball Capital of the World.”
Year 2 under Hurley saw a wave of youth enter the program in the form of three top-100 recruits. There was an early season win over then-No. 15 Florida. There was a four game stretch of “brutal” and “excruciating” losses too. With two starters sidelined for the season and Gilbert relegated to a bench role, UConn put together seven wins over nine games, capped off by a 77-71 win over No. 21 Houston on Senior Night.
“Over the past three years it’s been a lot of adversity,” Gilbert said. “This is a little of the reward, but we gotta keep building.”
The healthier times are ahead for the Huskies. Joining future sophomores Akok Akok, James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney are Andre Jackson and Javonte Brown-Ferguson – two more top-100 recruits. Next year’s group will have the ability to look back on what Vital did for them and what Gilbert did for them – if he does decide to leave with one year of eligibility – and use it to bring along the next generation.
“We’d be lost if he didn’t take that leadership mantle,” Hurley said about Vital. “Six or seven weeks ago, the lightswitch came on and he really became the leader of the team along with Alterique, who’s been more of a quiet leader, but he’s helped bring along James, he’s helped bring along Gaffney. He wasn’t territorial being the senior and ‘this is my team.’”
UConn still has its eyes set on riches for this season, not just in the future. A photo of The American championship trophy has acted as another teammate, following the Huskies wherever they go. With one game left before the conference tournament, UConn’s last as a member of The American, the goal remains the same.
“We know if we come together, stay together as a team and be ready to play each and every day, we got a chance of beating anyone in the conference,” Gilbert said.
Vital has scored 1707 points, made more threes than anyone in the history of The American, grabbed 597 rebounds, stole the ball 198 times and dropped 236 dimes. He passed Jalen Adams for 10th all-time in UConn scoring with 26 points in his farewell to Gampel Pavilion and its sold out crowd. Gilbert scored 589 points –– nine on Senior Night –– assisted 208 times and snatched 71 steals as a Husky, but his and Vital’s legacy goes beyond the numbers.
“They’re the foundation of what’s going to happen next for us which is going to be a lot more nights like this,” Hurley said. “They’ve helped us instill a standard that in last year’s transition year we couldn’t get to that point with the group because we didn’t spend enough time together. This was the year the standard got back to being the standard.”