Entering the 2022-23 college basketball season, the UConn men’s basketball team started a new era with changes across the board. However, before that new roster stepped on the hardwood as a collective unit, they’d be looking to continue their legacy of grit-and-grind basketball without some of their franchise cornerstones. That included players like Isaiah Whaley.
There was more than just the statistics for the Huskies alum. He brought more than the emotions that fans could see as he battled with his fellow teammates for wins, whether that was with the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament where Whaley could be seen energized after an and-one layup or getting spirited by the loyal Connecticut fans wherever the team played.
One of the most significant contributions that could be seen from the Wrench was his mentorship. It has been a big part of his legacy in the Huskies locker room to this day, even with Whaley no longer physically there on a daily basis to extend a helping hand. Everyone could feel the impact that he had on the program, especially from a development perspective.
“It was huge. We had some older players that understood the beginning of setting our culture and that we recruit good guys that will embrace being led by others. Really good leaders. They know when to lead and when to follow. Obviously, they had some great teachers with Isaiah the Wrench, Swaggy T, R.J. [Cole] and Christian Vital,” said coach Dan Hurley.
You could see that impact in the spirit of Adama Sanogo, now at the conclusion of a fantastic junior season and in for a promising future himself. That level of production wouldn’t be without the former UConn big.
“Everytime I needed advice, I’d text him, ‘Yo bro, there’s just some things happening in school with the coaches. I don’t like something [that’s] happening. This guy just said something to me. What do you think I should do?’ I needed somebody to talk to like that. It was definitely good to have Isaiah as a teammate for sure,” said Sanogo.
Without the Wrench in the locker room to help give that leadership, someone needed to step up with this current roster. One of those people was Sanogo, who passed on those lessons during the season to young center Donovan Clingan. Just like a veteran Whaley had done for Sanogo in his first-year season in Storrs, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player was ready and willing to do so for another up and coming big man.
“My freshman year, I remember when I came here, a senior like Isaiah told me how to be and how to act. I definitely was able to do that for Donovan by showing that if you want to be one of the greats, you need to do this. Coming to the gym in the morning and taking him to the gym with me in the morning. Taking him into my apartment and talking to him. Stuff like that,” said Sanogo.
While Whaley himself wasn’t able to be on the court for a UConn championship (Hurley expressed that the last wristband for court access went to Husky great Kemba Walker over Whaley), his spirit was felt nonetheless. He gazed upon the court from the crowd, emotional at what had just transpired. A little over a year ago, the Huskies and Whaley had just been upset by No. 12 New Mexico St., led by guard Teddy Allen. It was of course a frustrating moment for Whaley and for the team in general. It was his last season and the last hoorah of a career that was filled with more than dozens of memories in the blue and white.
But he had made his mark, and one Husky would certainly feel the benefit of Whaley’s mentorship. Behind the scenes, a young forward named Alex Karaban was learning. He was just grasping the college basketball lifestyle as a student-athlete, and who better to teach him than the Wrench, a person who had five years of experience in Storrs. It was of course not just the Wrench who was helping to mentor him into a dangerous college player. The former IMG Academy standout would be helped by players like Tyrese Martin, R.J. Cole and Tyler Polley among many others. Now, fresh off a season that saw him blossom into first-year All-Big East member, that experience and mentorship has become a critical part of his Husky career.
“I just want to give them all the credit too because they helped build UConn back up and they passed it along to us to really take it off and take it to the championship level so they were the key people for this. They really talked about how it’s going to be an amazing feeling when UConn wins and it’s definitely more than that,” said Karaban.
The Huskies have truly enjoyed the love from the college basketball world and their own fans with the team’s parade over this weekend. However, one of the best feelings of this championship celebration for athletes like Karaban came from the players who helped to establish the foundation of a championship core.
“I had R.J. [Cole] text me. I had Isaiah [Whaley]. He was in Houston. I saw him after the game. We probably hugged like 15, 20 times maybe. Both of them just said they were so proud of me and that we really earned this,” said Karaban.
And both players were speaking the truth. It took years to establish such a talented group of players that would take over the NCAA Tournament in such dominant fashion. As they won and played with motivation in the process for the players who couldn’t see the court, Karaban says, it felt amazing.
“I was really motivated for the upcoming season to really just leave an imprint on UConn and then to just win it for them. I’m glad that they were able to see that as well,” said Karaban.
Several times during that Championship run, Whaley came to mind! He was the glue for those teams in ’01 and ’02 and that relentless effort in the paint. He deserved to be on this Championship squad!!