On Jan. 8, 2020, the UConn men’s basketball team squared off against Tulane. It was a Wednesday, 9 p.m. game at Gampel Pavilion, which is never a huge draw for fans regardless. But add in the fact that most students were off campus for winter break, and Gampel probably resembled something of a ghost town that night. Officially, the attendance was 5,721, but unofficially, there were probably more empty seats in the house than full ones.
The game wasn’t anything remarkable. The Huskies won 67-61, moving their record to 10-5 at the time. The star of the game was Tyler Polley, who scored a season-high 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting and grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds, six of them on the offensive end.
Leaving the court that night, Polley had played his best game in what could have been a breakout junior season. However, two days later, he tore his ACL in practice and would not return to the court for the remainder of the season.
That Tulane game feels like a lifetime ago now with everything that has happened in the world since then. But through the coronavirus pandemic and all, Polley has rehabbed his knee and is eyeing a comeback whenever the college basketball season starts.
“Rehab is going good right now,” Polley said when addressing the media last month. “Just taking it easy, taking it slow because we don’t know when the season’s even gonna start. So there’s no rush right now, but I’m making great progress I think. Right now on the court, I’m just putting up shots, not doing too much. But I’m getting there though. It’s coming soon. Trust me.”
Polley said that if the season does start on time in November, which is seeming less and less likely, he believes he would be ready to play. Polley still being on pace to return is impressive considering he didn’t have anything resembling a normal rehab process. He said it was really difficult at first to rehab alone at home with only virtual help from the trainers.
“As the months started going along, I found a gym and I found a place where I could get some rehab in and get some extra work in,” Polley said. “It worked out for the best, but at first when I first got home, it was pretty hard.”
Head coach Dan Hurley is impressed with Polley’s progress since being back on campus. He said Polley is up to 45-minute workouts four times a week.
“Tyler looks great,” Hurley said at the beginning of September. “He’s doing pretty much all different movements — backpedal, slide, sprinting. It’s all 1-on-0 stuff, but he’s doing a lot of game-simulated live shooting and defensive movement things.”
Getting Polley back for this season is huge for the team, not only because of his strong play, but because he will be one of the leaders of the team as a senior. This is a role that Polley is embracing.
“It’s surreal to me because I remember being a little freshman coming to campus nervous, bright-eyed,” Polley said. “But now I’m a senior and it’s time to take on more responsibility, time to take on more leadership. I’m excited for the role. I’m excited to step up to the challenge.”
Hurley said having someone like Polley for younger players to look up to as an example is important for his team.
“It’s our third year together, so we’re on the same page,” Hurley said. “Tyler understands exactly what the expectations are and the standards. He really helps us uphold them.”
Aside from his role as a leader, Polley might be one of the Huskies’ best players this year. He has improved his game every season he’s been in Storrs, setting career highs in points (9.5) and rebounds (3.2) per game last season before his injury.
Polley’s greatest asset to the team is his 3-point shooting. He is a career 39% 3-point shooter, and he led the Huskies last year by hitting over 40% of his threes. Hurley said his ability to stretch the floor as a 6-foot-9 forward provides so much versatility and is an incredible advantage for the team to have.
“His shooting and his underrated defensive abilities obviously were missed last year,” Hurley said. “When you play small with four guards, to have a 6’8” guy that you can play as a fourth guard or to go big with him as a third guard, it just does so much for you defensively in terms of length. We were obviously a lot better defensively prior to his injury if you look at the numbers. And then to go along with his shooting, those are critical components.”
Hurley is anticipating a big year from Polley, especially with the evolution of James Bouknight and two new starting guards, RJ Cole and Jalen Gaffney, to work with.
“It’s critical to have guys like Tyler on the court with a guy like James, and we feel like Gaffney and RJ are really going to put Tyler in a position to shine next year,” Hurley said. “The emergence of James, two guards that will really be able to find him and an improved frontcourt will really open things up for Tyler.”
In this 2020-21 college basketball season — whatever it may look like — the UConn Huskies will look to be among the top teams not only in the Big East Conference, but in the country, and one of the storylines to follow will be Tyler Polley’s comeback tour. If all goes well, we could be seeing many more performances like that Wednesday night way back in January, when Polley showed everyone, including himself, what he’s capable of.
“I feel like the last game [against Tulane] is something I could do every game,” Polley said. “I think I just took a different approach that game, played fearless and that’s the result … I know what I’m capable of and I know I can do that every game.”