In Dan Hurley’s second year as the head coach of the UConn men’s basketball program, things got better. Attendance numbers are trending up again, top-100 recruits are landing in Storrs and most importantly, the team is winning games.
Hurley led UConn to their first winning record since 2015-16 this past year, finishing 19-12 overall and 10-8 in conference play.
His Christian Vital-led squad took on preseason No. 6 Florida – who did not stay ranked for long, I might add – at Gampel Pavilion and beat them 62-59 in mid-November. Vital and junior wing Tyler Polley dropped 15 points each in the standout victory.
After Florida, UConn just couldn’t get over the hump in games over Xavier, who they lost 75-74 in double overtime to just a week later, Indiana and Villanova. Each of these games were decided by six points or fewer, though, so they stayed within striking distance in all of the contests. More importantly, it showed the UConn faithful they can hang.
They struggled out of the gate in conference play, losing six of their first seven games, with their lone win coming against Tulane on Jan. 8. After losing their next four games in a row by a combined 17 points, the Huskies took off.
UConn went 9-3 to finish out the season – including another statement win on senior night against Houston 77-71 – securing Dan Hurley’s first .500-plus record in Storrs and a fifth seed in the conference tournament. Unfortunately, the tournament was never played as a result of coronavirus, but UConn was riding the hot hand having won their last five games.
UConn came into the year with a few new faces to complement the old guard of Vital, Alterique Gilbert and Polley. Hurley and Co. secured recruits from three ESPN top-100 players for the 2019 season. Guard’s Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight came to town alongside Akok Akok, who had enrolled in the spring of 2019. UConn also secured forward Richie Springs and transfer R.J. Cole, who both redshirted for the season.
Vital shined bright in his senior season, averaging 16.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.5 steals per game as he ran the point for the Huskies. He led the team in minutes, points, rebounds, steals, free throw percentage, three-pointers and field goals made. Simply, the offense ran through No. 1.
UConn also saw standout performances from Bouknight, Isaiah Whaley, Polley and Akok. However, both Akok and Polley had injury-shortened seasons after Polley tore his ACL in practice mid-season and Akok torn his left Achilles tendon against Memphis in February.
Bouknight missed the first three games of the year after a scooter incident pre-season left him suspended. After that, though, it was obvious he had arrived in Storrs. Through 28 games, the freshman averaged 13 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.8 steals per game. His high-flying dunks landed him on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top-10 plays, with a No. 1 spot after his sprawled-out, one-handed alley-oop against East Carolina in late-February.
— Husky Highlights (@UConnHighlights) March 5, 2020
Whaley’s year was a tale of two seasons, having scored just 43 combined points in the first 16 games before exploding in the second half. He scored in double-digits eight times in the last 15 games, totaling 117 points. In his last six games – all starts – Whaley averaged 32.8 minutes, 13.8 points, 8.7 boards and 2.5 blocks per game. He also shot 58.8% from the field and 79.9% from the line in his last six. Considering he scored just five points in all of 2018-19, that’s quite the jump.
Polley had a great year scoring-wise, as he averaged 9.5 points per game on 46.2% from the floor and 40.5% from three-point land. Before his injury, Polley scored in double-digits in nine out of 15 games, including his first career double-double against Tulane on Jan. 8 when he put up 19 points and 11 rebounds.
Akok wasn’t so much a factor on the scoring end, but he put on an absolute clinic in front of the basket. The Akok Block Party was on display weekly, as he had nine games of three or more blocks, including five of five or more and a seven-block performance against Tulsa. He finished the year averaging 5.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game through 25 games.
UConn wasn’t without strugglers, though, as Gilbert and Gaffney weren’t great for the Huskies despite playing in all 31 games apiece. Gilbert averaged just 8.2 points per game on 34.6% shooting, down from 13 per game on 40.2% in 2018-19, before deciding to transfer to Wichita State for next season. Gaffney seemed hesitant to shoot in the first half, scoring just 3.9 per game on 33.6% shooting, but picked it up toward the end of his freshman campaign.
Nest season, UConn will be adding consensus top-100 recruit Andre Jackson, Javonte Brown-Ferguson and newly committed Adama Sanogo to go along with Rhode Island transfer Tyrese Martin, who committed to play for Hurley at his old gig. Along with the new recruits the Huskies will also be getting a new crop of competition as they head back to the Big East.