UConn senior guard Christian Vital is already one of the most well-rounded players in school history. In fact, he is the only UConn player ever with over 1,700 points, 650 rebounds, 250 assists and 200 steals.
Vital is currently 10th all-time in points, third in steals and second in 3-pointers made, and he will also go down as one of the best free throw shooters in UConn history.
So Vital has already solidified himself as one of the best players to don a UConn uniform for four seasons, but one thing is missing from his resume: Postseason success.
When Vital came to Storrs in 2016, UConn basketball hit a rough patch, finishing under .500 for the first time since Jim Calhoun’s first season in 1986-87, and it didn’t stop there. The Huskies finished under .500 for Vital’s first three seasons. Finally, this year UConn bounced back, and despite some tough injuries, the team sits at 19-12 with a pretty favorable No. 5 seeding in this week’s American Athletic Conference tournament.
This is Vital’s chance. If the Huskies are to make their first NCAA tournament since 2016, they will have to win the conference tournament. And to win the conference tournament, they need Vital to show out.
Vital is the heart and soul of this team. He’s the leader on the court and in the locker room. And he’s put together a terrific senior season, particularly in the second half of the season. Head coach Dan Hurley noted that Vital seemed to “flip a switch” about six or seven years ago, which was also when the team seemed to turn the corner.
With a 10-9 record after losing to Tulsa on Jan. 26, the Huskies have since gone 9-3 in the final 12 games of the season. Over that time, Vital averaged over 20 points per game on an efficient 43% shooting. He’s making a late push for conference player of the year after winning back-to-back player of the week honors.
The Huskies will enter the tournament on a five-game winning streak, during which Vital has been on fire, averaging almost 25 points on 53% shooting. He will need to continue that torrid pace for the team to have a chance to win the tournament.
Obviously Vital can’t do everything, and he doesn’t have to. James Bouknight has emerged as a prolific scorer this season, Isaiah Whaley made significant strides in the absence of Akok Akok and Jalen Gaffney proved to be the point guard of the future.
But Vital is the guy.
He’s the guy who this team will lean on to make the big shot in crunch time. He’s the guy who Hurley will depend on to rally the troops. He’s the guy who will find the ball in his hands with the game on the line. And if the Huskies can make a 2011-like run in the tournament and win four games in four days this weekend, Vital will be the guy who made it happen.
To say Vital is the X-factor this week would be an understatement. He is the glue of this team, and when he’s playing well, the team is usually playing well too. UConn is undermanned after the loss of Akok and Tyler Polley, basically playing with a seven-man rotation with an occasional appearance from Sidney Wilson. That means Vital is going to have to carry a load of 33-plus minutes every night. It’s not going to be easy.
But if Vital is up to the challenge this week, he could cement his legacy and be one of the players that people immediately associate with UConn basketball. Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier. Could Christian Vital be the next one to lead UConn to something special? We’ll find out later this week in Fort Worth, Texas.