Men’s Basketball Notebook: Tyrese Martin is UConn’s x-factor

Dec 30, 2020; Storrs, Connecticut, USA; Connecticut Huskies guard Tyrese Martin (4) shoots against the DePaul Blue Demons in the first half at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. Photo by David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

On every team, there are those players who, while not the star, are crucial to the team’s success. They’re an x-factor, someone who has the ability to transform the game, and if they play well, so does the team.

James Bouknight is the star for UConn, and as he goes, UConn goes — but Tyrese Martin is that x-factor.

Martin, a junior transfer from Rhode Island, who was originally recruited by current UConn head coach Dan Hurley while at URI, is a big guard at 6-foot-6. He’s shown early on that he can make an impact on both ends of the floor, and that’s just what he did Wednesday night against DePaul.

The Blue Demons focused so much on Bouknight following his 40-point display in UConn’s last game against Creighton that it created opportunities for Martin to shine.

“Martin was a guy that really capitalized on some freedom, freedom of movement,” DePaul head coach Dave Leitao said. “He made shots, he made plays, he rebounded, and give credit to him.”

Dec 30, 2020; Storrs, Connecticut, USA; Connecticut Huskies guard James Bouknight (2) shoots against DePaul Blue Demons guard Javon Freeman-Liberty (4) in the first half at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. Photo by David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Martin was absolutely on fire shooting the ball, scoring 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, both highs for his young UConn career. His 22 points were a team-high for the game, beating out Bouknight by two, as were his 15 shots and nine makes.

He showed a real ability to fight through traffic to make a layup or secure the putback, and he also shot the ball efficiently from deep, making 2-of-3 of his three-point attempts.

“He’s a guy we could post some, cause he’s so athletic and he’s so active,” Hurley said. “He’s an excellent rebounder, he’s on the offensive glass, change of possession, he really gets out in transition, and when he gets downhill, with the drive, particularly going at that left hand, he’s got an ability to really finish at the rim. And if he could shoot somewhere in the mid-30s from three … and with everything he can bring you defensively, on the backboard, that was encouraging.”

Aside from his scoring though, Martin provided tremendous value as a rebounder, and his 10 for the game was tied for the team-high along with center Josh Carlton. Five of those boards were offensive, including a really impressive possession where he came up with two. After missing a contested layup, he got his own rebound, and after Carlton tried to put that one up but got blocked, Martin got the rebound again, this time in the perfect position for an easy put-back layup.

“Rebounding just keeps me involved in the game, just keeps me going, and locked-in, so that’s just something that’s a part of my game that I like to do, and I take a lot of passion, I would say, into rebounding,” Martin said. “I take that very seriously.”

He showed good vision as a distributor, with his three assists being tied for the second-most on the team, and he didn’t turn the ball over once — the only UConn player who played over 20 minutes to do so.

That’s the thing with Martin, his value is not contingent on being able to score the ball. He doesn’t have to have 20-point nights as he did on Wednesday in order to be a useful piece for this team. In the Creighton game, he only had two points, but he still excelled as a rebounder, pulling down 10, four offensive. 

It’s no surprise that after having the highest plus/minus against Creighton, he had the second-highest plus/minus against DePaul, with his 19 being just two shy of Bouknight.

He’s seen his role expand from game to game, going from 25 minutes in his first game to 28 in the next, 35 in the overtime game against Creighton and then 31 against DePaul, which also certainly would have been more if the team wasn’t up by so much.

“He’s obviously really physical, he’s got great physical stature, he’s super athletic, he’s got a toughness about him,” Hurley said. “He’s more streaky shooter, he’s more of a guy that maybe is a 1-for-3 three-point guy. Because of everything we missed … we’re just learning on the fly kind of how to use him, and where he can be effective.”

His 31 minutes on Wednesday were second on the team, once again to Bouknight, so it’s clear he’s going to be a major part of this UConn team going forward.

Bouknight is dynamic, he’s the star of this team and potentially a future lottery pick. But Martin is so involved in the game in positive ways on both ends of the floor that he might just be the next most important player on the team. He’s UConn’s x-factor.

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