Last season, UConn men’s basketball belonged to one man, Christian Vital. And after leading the team in scoring, boards and steals in his senior year, CV left some serious shoes to fill. But while the team looks a little different this year, the Huskies’ winning culture remains unchanged, and they are eager to take on whatever the rest of 2020 has to offer.
“It’s gonna be really different and difficult at times, but this team has really grown together and I feel like whatever environment we play in it’s gonna be really intense,” senior Isaiah Whaley said. “It’s gonna be different but we’re still gonna be playing as hard as we can regardless.”
As UConn heads back to the Big East for the first time since 2013, there is no single leader of the pack. Instead, each returning player has taken on more of a leadership role to help acclimate the freshmen and keep the momentum from last season rolling.
Seniors Tyler Polley, Josh Carlton and Whaley have been hard at work this offseason. Polley has been rehabbing the torn ACL he suffered in January, while Carlton and Whaley found the time to work out together in West Virginia. Polley says he’d be ready to play if the season were to start in November, and Carlton has dropped 20 pounds, but it’s Whaley who heads into this season with the highest expectations.
Few players had as strong a finish to the 2019-2020 season as Whaley, who averaged 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in the team’s last seven games — in which they went 6-1. Whaley knows he won’t be able to surprise people anymore after that campaign, but welcomes the challenge ahead this season, saying he has a bigger chip on his shoulder than before.
The three seniors will combine their efforts to help out freshmen big men Javonte Brown and Adama Sanogo. Both players help add depth to the team’s already stacked frontcourt, a challenge Carlton also sees as beneficial for the whole team.
“Having a deep front court makes everybody better,” Carlton said. “[It] increases competition in practice, helps people build off what they did last year and helps the incoming freshman learn things from the older players.”
Brown is a 7-foot defensive machine, who makes up for raw talent on the offensive end with great defensive abilities. Every time he has been mentioned in conversation, players and coaches alike say he is sure to surprise some people this year.
Sanogo, meanwhile, has been described on multiple occasions as a grown man, despite being a teenager. Teammates say he has great footwork inside, he is incredibly athletic and can hurt you from all levels of the court.
Redshirt freshman Richie Springs will also be competing for minutes after sitting out his freshman year due to ineligibility. At 6-foot-9 Springs is a bully in the paint with unlimited potential.
All three are sure to provide helpful minutes in their first official seasons.
As for the guards, it’ll be James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney and transfer RJ Cole leading the way.
Bouknight is coming off an incredible freshman campaign where he finished second on the team in scoring, and averaged 17 points and five boards in the Huskies’ last 13 games. Projected to earn a spot on the All Big-East First Team for the upcoming year, all eyes will be on Bouk to see if he has what it takes to repeat and build upon his freshman year numbers. The sophomore, however, remains unphased.
“Just being locked in, doing the things I have to do on and off the court to be ready when we do get the chance to play,” Bouknight said. “Bonding with my teammates, make sure we’re all on the same page. Go out there and just attack every day.”
Gaffney was disappointed after his rookie season in which he averaged just four points and two assists, but says it was more mental than physical.
“I came in with high expectations and I really wasn’t meeting them, especially at the beginning of the season,” Gaffney said. “It was kind of built up nervousness and adjusting to the flow of the game and the strength and everything about college basketball.”
Now with a year of experience under his belt and an entire offseason to work on his game, Gaffney has added 15 pounds of muscle, upped his vertical, feels faster than ever and expects to be much more assertive on the offensive end of the court.
RJ Cole, while yet to play a game for the Huskies, is the oldest and wisest guard on the team. After transferring from Howard where he averaged 21 points and six assists, Cole sat out the 2019 season and became more acclimated with UConn’s program. Now with that year behind him, he can’t wait to showcase his talents.
“Everything around me revolves around my teammates,” Cole said. “Getting them in the right positions, knowing where they’re gonna be, just putting my IQ to play every day I think I can bring a lot to the table for my teammates.”
Wrapping up the new-look Huskies are wingers Tyrese Martin and Andre Jackson.
Jackson is a top-50 recruit heading into this year. He has great length that he uses to his strength on both ends of the court, and has the whole team taking notice early on.
“Andre, he’s a freak of nature,” Cole said. “Athletically he’s a very freakish talent, he has the vision, he has the IQ to be a very smart basketball player and he’ll definitely help us a lot this year.”
Martin is the newest UConn transfer, coming from URI after his sophomore year in which he averaged 13 points and seven rebounds for the Rams. Like many of his teammates, Martin is a long, athletic wing player who can shoot the ball consistently from range. He is still waiting to hear back from the NCAA regarding his eligibility to play this season.
So while this team has a lot of new faces and new leaders entering 2021, the winning culture Hurley has established remains unchanged. And should there be a season, delayed or not, UConn has a lot to look forward to this season.
“I feel like we’re one step ahead of everybody else out there so whenever we end up playing I feel like we’ll be ready when that time comes,” Cole said. “I think we’ll be a very special group to watch.”