After everything that went on in the offseason — a delayed start to the season, a change in team protocols and a 14-day shutdown that just ended last Thursday — the UConn men’s basketball team will make its long-awaited season debut on Wednesday at 8 p.m. against Central Connecticut State. They will follow that up quickly with another game against Hartford on Friday at 8 p.m.
“It’s a blessing to get the opportunity during a time like this when so many people are suffering,” head coach Dan Hurley said on a Zoom call on Tuesday. “It’s a blessing for us to get on the court and do what we love to do and hopefully become a great distraction for people during a really hard time.”
Both games will be played at Gampel Pavilion, which will be empty with the exception of the teams themselves, some family members of the players and a few members of the media. Hurley said that will be really different and it will be up to the bench to provide what noise it can.
“Home or road with no crowd is almost meaningless minus the fact that you’re familiar in your surroundings,” Hurley said. “But the crowd is the separator … It changes the game, it changes sports when there’s no fans and there’s no crowd. It takes a huge element out of sports.”
But despite playing in a quieter Gampel Pavilion, the team is really excited to get out there. These games weren’t official until Monday because the staff wasn’t sure whether the players would be ready so soon after the two-week layoff. But Hurley said it was the players who made it clear they wanted to play this week.
“I was influenced by the players,” Hurley said. “I think these guys early on when we got into our first practice [back] together, they desperately wanted to start playing.”
“It’s a blessing for us to get on the court and do what we love to do and hopefully become a great distraction for people during a really hard time.”head coach Dan Hurley
Hurley said they had some really good practices since returning on Thursday, including a live scrimmage with officials on Saturday. He said everyone is healthy and will be available for Wednesday except for Akok Akok, who is still rehabbing his Achilles tear. But Hurley said his recovery has been “remarkable” and he could progress into full 5-on-5 play by next week.
Hurley said he knows the basketball won’t be flawless this week, but he’s depending on the culture of the team to make up for that.
“Pretty much our focus in the last couple of days was just try to really work on our defense, try to make sure that our culture and how hard we play and our togetherness,” Hurley said. “It’s gonna be choppy. It’s not always gonna be pretty, but we’ve gotta be tough, we’ve gotta defend and our culture’s got to be there to carry us while the basketball is ugly.”
UConn’s first opponent, CCSU, finished last in the Northeast Conference last season with a 4-27 overall record. The Blue Devils are coached by former UConn great Donyell Marshall, who Hurley has a long history with and said he has a lot of respect for.
“Donyell is one of the true greats that ever played here,” Hurley said. “He’s one of the first greats that made the decision to come here. He was a trailblazer.”
CCSU’s top returners are Ian Krishnan, Greg Outlaw and Myles Baker, three guards who Hurley said will be “really tough guys to guard.” Krishnan led the Blue Devils in scoring last year with 12.5 points per game, while Outlaw and Baker averaged 8.8 and 8.6, respectively.
After CCSU, the Huskies will have to quickly prepare for Hartford, a team that made it all the way to the America East championship game last season before it was canceled. The Hawks went 18-15 overall last season, and they return almost all of their top players, including forward Hunter Marks and guards Moses Flowers and Traci Carter.
Hurley said scouting these teams has been hard with no real preseason or exhibition games, and he knows for sure that they’re going to be tough games.
“You’re basically flying blind on this one,” Hurley said.
UConn holds a 14-0 all-time record against CCSU and a 13-1 all-time record against Hartford. The last time the Huskies and Blue Devils faced off was Dec. 23, 2015, which was a 99-52 UConn win. The last time the Huskies played the Hawks was way back on Nov. 17, 2008, when UConn won 99-56.
These aren’t necessarily the most high-profile matchups, but the ability to schedule two in-state opponents is the safest way UConn can play during a very volatile time for college basketball. The UConn women’s basketball team had a positive COVID-19 test on Monday and will now have to miss its first four games, so players like Tyler Polley know how fortunate they are to be playing.
“It means everything with how the world is right now with COVID and teams are getting shut down and all sorts of crazy stuff,” Polley said. “It’s a blessing to go out there and play and represent UConn, so I’m excited.”
Wednesday’s game will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1 while Friday’s game will be on CBS Sports Network.