It’s been a tumultuous season for the University of Connecticut men’s basketball season. There have been multiple pauses due to COVID-19, including one that had nothing to do with the team itself (a referee tested positive after one of the games). There have been multiple injuries, including one to the clear-cut best player on the team, James Bouknight, that kept him out for six weeks.
But the Huskies still sit at 10-5 and firmly on the bubble for an at-large bid with five games remaining in the regular season. And most importantly, the team is healthy, or as head coach Dan Hurley likes to say, “The band is back together.”
Bouknight made his return on Tuesday night against Providence and immediately gave the team a lift, scoring 18 points in 24 minutes off the bench. The Huskies won handily 73-61 against a team that beat them 70-59 just six days earlier. One might point to Bouknight as the only reason for that turnaround, but doing so would fail to recognize the improvements the team has made around Bouknight in his absence.
The Huskies played one of their most complete games all season against Xavier on Saturday without Bouknight. That should be scary for opposing teams. The team had just figured out how to play really good basketball without Bouknight, and now they have him back on top of that.
R.J. Cole is a much more confident scorer now than he was when Bouknight went out. Tyrese Martin has really figured out his role as a guy who can get 15 points and eight rebounds every game. The frontcourt of Isaiah Whaley, Adama Sanogo and even Josh Carlton have found their mantra: great defense and rebounding, and contribute on the offensive end when they can. Andre Jackson is figuring out what he can do with his freak athleticism. Akok Akok is healthier and can hopefully provide 10-15 quality minutes per game.
Everything is starting to come together for this team, and having Bouknight back makes them a legitimate threat. This is clearly a NCAA Tournament team, and I believe it can get an automatic bid by winning the Big East Tournament.
Villanova is clearly the team to beat in the conference, and that is what makes the game this weekend so intriguing. Providence is not a tournament team, so while beating the Friars in the way UConn did was impressive, it didn’t prove a lot. When they play Villanova on the road this season, it is a true litmus test for how good the Huskies can be at full strength. They may not beat Villanova, but if they play well and lose by five or less, it’d be a good sign for UConn as we get closer to the conference tournament. It will show that they can challenge any team in the Big East.
Even if UConn doesn’t win the Big East Tournament, I still think their resume will be good enough to get a bid into the national tournament. From there, it all depends on seeding and region. If they are an No. 8 or No. 9 seed—which would be likely with an at-large bid –it ’d be hard for them to get beyond the second, having to play a No. 1 seed like Baylor or Gonzaga, depending on the region. I think the Huskies are a good team, but not good enough to beat teams of that caliber.
So what’s the ceiling for this UConn team? Well, I think it’s clearly the best team since 2016 and possibly even since 2014. I think they make the NCAA Tournament somehow, but unless they get a friendly seeding and region, I don’t see them advancing beyond the first weekend. But, that’s definitely not a bad outcome in year three of a rebuild. I think if you had told UConn fans before the season that the team would make the tournament for the first time in five years, they would have been happy with that. Anything more is icing on the cake.
That being said, it’s called March Madness for a reason, and UConn has made surprising runs to the Final Four before. So, I’m not ruling anything out because this team, when fully healthy, is special. They have a great coach who connects with his players in Hurley, a go-to guy when the game is on the line in Bouknight and a bunch of other solid players who know their roles. That’s a winning formula when the calendar changes to March.
I’m not making any bold predictions, but let’s just say if the Huskies surprise some people next month, they won’t be surprising me.