After weeks of anticipating and building up with team workouts, the long-awaited first official practice of the 2020-21 season for the UConn men’s basketball team took place on Friday.
Head coach Dan Hurley said it was an intense, physical practice that lasted two hours. About 40 minutes out of that were live, 5-on-5 scrimmaging while the rest was spent on offensive and defensive drills.
For a veteran like senior Isaiah Whaley, Friday’s practice was somewhat like a return to normalcy.
“It felt like as close to normal as we can get, especially to start off practice, we were able to get in the film room together,” Whaley said. “That was our first time in the film room in forever. So us being in the film room together really felt like a normal thing. I feel like this is the most normal practice we’ve had so far.”
Whaley added that the team was much more positive and confident than first practices in past years.
For a newcomer like freshman Andre Jackson, it was a debut that certainly lived up to the expectations he had when he committed to UConn.
“It was really intense,” Jackson said. “We’ve been really working hard in our workouts that came before this, so it wasn’t a huge adjustment. A lot more defensive focus and definitely a lot of energy today, so I think it went well.”
Jackson said he made some rookie mistakes, but he’s going to use that as fuel to get better before the season begins.
“First practice, so I’m not going to get down on myself or get down on my teammates,” Jackson said. “Just try to get better every day and stack as many good practices in a row as I can.”
Despite the return to practice, Hurley knows this isn’t a normal situation. Friday would have been UConn’s annual First Night celebration of men’s and women’s basketball at Gampel Pavilion. Normally, there would be secret scrimmages and exhibition games on the horizon as well, but all Hurley and the team can do is take what is given to them and prepare for the season as best as they can.
“It’s hard to wrap your mind around the season’s gonna be on us in five, six weeks here … when there’s no First Night or no secret scrimmages or no exhibition,” Hurley said. “Usually those are markers for us like, ‘Hey, wake the hell up’ … So in that standpoint, it doesn’t feel the same. But practice today, we got after it and we played. It had the intensity of a first practice and energy of a first practice.”
Hurley said the focus throughout these next few weeks of practice will be getting the players a lot of reps in live scrimmages since none of them have played in real-game situations since March.
In Friday’s practice, Akok Akok, Brendan Adams and Tyrese Martin didn’t fully participate, Hurley said. Akok and Adams are still coming back from their respective Achilles and foot injuries, while Martin sustained a quad sprain at some point last week. Hurley said that Akok took part in some non-live drills as he looks to eye a January comeback, while Adams and Martin will be back much sooner.
Hurley has high hopes for this team. He said there is an abundance of talent throughout the roster, and the team’s biggest strength will be its depth and balance.
“James [Bouknight] has the chance to be a dynamic player,” Hurley said. “And then I think we’ve got a number of guys that can be double-figure scorers … You almost feel like you have seven or eight starters.”
But despite the optimism surrounding the squad, Hurley said that can’t be mistaken for complacency. There’s still a lot of work to be done this year, and Friday was just the beginning.
“We just want to take another big step as a program and continue to make progress,” Hurley said. “Keep elevating things and eventually get it to the point where we’re competing for the Big East Championship and the National Championship.”