While Saturday may have been the first official practice for the 2019-2020 UConn men’s basketball team, its goal was set way in advance: Win the conference championship.
Alongside the practice court in the Werth Family Basketball Champions Center, behind a row of chairs and near extra equipment, there’s a large photo that follows the team wherever they go: photo of the American Athletic Conference Championship trophy.
The trophy serves as a reminder for the team and the coaching staff. A reminder of what the goals are on the court, as well as off of it, something head coach Dan Hurley did in his days at the University of Rhode Island.
“Yeah we did that at Rhode Island,” Hurley said after practice. “Just as a reminder of what the expectations should be for us and just what you should be constantly in pursuit of. You shouldn’t be in pursuit of your own individual accolades and mindset. You gotta be chasing a championship.”
Hurley inherited a team with more losses than wins (14-18) in 2018 and coached to a 16-17 mark in his first year in Storrs. Between a strong veteran presence and a top-25 recruiting class, year two under Hurley is showing strong signs of what this program can accomplish.
“If we get those three older players (Vital, Gilbert, Carlton) playing at an all-conference level and then we get a jump from those other guys (Polley and Whaley) and the freshmen are good, then you gotta chase that this year,” Hurley said. “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to.”
As the most senior guys on the team, Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital have a firm grasp as the leaders of this year’s bunch. Gilbert was able to stay mostly healthy last season while Vital put up the best numbers of his collegiate career. These two will play a large role in bringing along the new guys.
“I’m learning a lot from him and we came in together as well so now we’re looking at it as it’s our turn to lead this group,” Vital said on leading alongside Gilbert. “Every UConn guard, as a senior, they have their year and we’ve had a couple down years, so this has to be our year. This has to be our turn to lead this team and we don’t have to do it by ourselves. I have him and he has me and I think that’s a duo that can get the job done.”
The backcourt tandem cannot be the only way the Huskies win games this year. After taking home a share of the conference’s Most Improved Player Award a season ago, there are high expectations for junior center Josh Carlton.
“There’s high expectations, in general, just in basketball for [Carlton] this year,” Hurley said. “He established himself last year. He had really good numbers in the second half of the year especially and now its like ‘c’mon.’ You gotta take the next step because that’s the expectation and you’re capable. If he were to repeat last year’s performance, that would be disappointing.”
Carlton is expected to start at center for the Huskies this season, with the obvious duo of Gilbert and Vital in the backcourt. With a pair of openings still to be filled, Hurley wants guys like Tyler Polley and Isaiah Waley to “step out of the shadows” and “act like upperclassmen.”
Though he’s not a member of the junior class, redshirt sophomore Sidney Wilson’s name is never far from the conversation.
Wilson, a Bronx, N.Y. native, had a quiet season statistically in his first year playing for the Huskies. He was forced to sit as a transfer his freshman year and then forced to sit about a month of the summer with a thumb injury. Hurley said the combo guard/forward picked things up over the last week or so as they both know how important year two will be for Wilson, as well as the program.
“I feel a lot more comfortable after a year under my belt,” Wilson said. “I know what it takes to be a good player in college. I know how to get better, what I have to work on and I feel like coach pushed me a lot this summer so I can get better. I feel like you guys will see a better player this season.”
Wilson’s role has yet to be truly defined. As the preseason progresses, he may find himself in the starting lineup when the Huskies open the season against Sacred Heart on Nov. 8. Or he may be coming off the bench. Regardless, Hurley knows that Wilson will have a big impact on how this season goes.
“He’s an important player and it’s such an important year for his career,” Hurley said. “Sid can really help us and obviously he can help himself by just being a really good player. Compete to start. If you come up short in chasing that role, then we need him to elevate us off the bench.”
Regardless of who starts and who does not, the expectation to win is well-known from the top on down of the roster. The Huskies have not played for or won a conference championship since 2016, when Daniel Hamilton won tournament MVP in a win over Memphis. They also played in the conference title game in 2014 and we all know how that year ended.
2019 has the makings of being a very capable and very memorable year in Storrs, Connecticut: A pair of veteran guards, a nationally ranked freshman class, a passionate head coach and a photo. A photo of what is expected as a UConn Husky.
“It follows us wherever we go,” Wilson said about the photo of the trophy. “That’s our prize and we gotta keep our eyes on it.”
Kevin Arnold is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @karnold98.