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2020-21 Big East Men’s Basketball Preview: Connecticut Huskies

Well, hello there.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 16 Memphis at UConn
Get you a mascot that can do both
Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Team: UConn Huskies

2019-20 Record: 19-12, with a 10-8 record in American Athletic Conference action

2019-20 AAC Finish: Tied for fifth, earned the #5 seed in the AAC tourney by tiebreaker over Memphis

Final 2019-20 KenPom Ranking: #52

Projected Postseason: The Huskies did not appear in a single bracket projection tracked by Bracket Matrix when the season was shut down. I would imagine they would have been an easy NIT selection, but that’s just a guess.

Key Departures: Christian Vital was the only senior playing notable minutes for UConn last season. One of just four players to appear in every game and just two to start every game, the 6’2” Vital led the team in scoring and rebounding at 16.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He was also a major player on the defensive end, getting 2.5 steals per game and ranking #10 in the country in steal rate per KenPom.com.

Alterique Gilbert has also departed following his junior campaign, landing at Wichita State. 2019-20 was his only full season of activity for the Huskies after coming in as a top 40 prospect in 2016. Surgeries ended his first and second campaigns in Storrs, while a knee injury robbed him of five games in the back half of his third season before a head injury ended his season three games early. In 2019-20, Gilbert started in 20 of his 30 appearances, and averaged 8.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. Sidney Wilson is also gone, headed to SIUE after two years on UConn’s active roster. The former St. John’s transfer went from 19 minutes a game as a redshirt freshman for the Huskies to just 12 per contest, which still makes him a rotation player for the 23 games he appeared in. Wilson averaged only 3.3 points and 1.9 rebounds per game last year.

Key Returners: A whole bunch of them. Vital and Gilbert were UConn’s #1 and #4 scorers respectively, but that means that the Huskies return #2 and #3 as well as #5 through #9 on the scoring charts from a year ago. Josh Carlton (7.8 points, 6.1 rebounds) is the aforementioned only other guy to start all 31 games, while Brendan Adams (7.4 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists) and Jalen Gaffney (3.9 points, 1.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists) are the other two chaps to play in all 31 games. They aren’t the top two returning scorers, though, as that is James Bouknight (13.0 points/game) and Tyler Polley (9.5 points/game). Carlton, Akok Akok, and Isaiah Whaley all averaged more than five rebounds per game a year ago. Gaffney is the leader in the returning group in terms of assists per game, as the team was led by Gilbert and Vital in that department in 2019-20.

Key Additions: Can I interest you in 247 Sports’ #23 recruiting class? That’s the second best recruiting class in the Big East, trailing only Marquette. Andre Jackson (6’6”, 210 lb.) is the #50 prospect in the 2020 class, making him one of the 20 best prospects to commit to the Huskies this century. Adama Sanogo (6’9”, 240 lb.) comes in from The Patrick School in New Jersey as the #78 prospect in the country. Javonte Brown (7’0”, 250 lb.) is outside the top 150 where I tend to draw the line in terms of key additions for recruits, but it’s hard to ignore the possible impact of a human that large even if they’re ranked #172.

Richie Springs (6’9”, 225 lb.) was the #161 prospect in the country a year ago, but according to his own UConn bio page, he sat out the season as an academic redshirt. It’s unclear at this point how much he’ll be able to contribute, but he’s got a year of college practice under his belt if nothing else as he starts his four years of eligibility. R.J. Cole (6’1”, 185 lb.) is now eligible after his transfer redshirt season. He spent two years at Howard, where he started in all but two of his 67 appearances. He’s a scorer to say the least, averaging 22.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. Tyrese Martin (6’6”, 215 lb.) is a newcomer to the program after transferring in from Rhode Island, and he’ll be eligible immediately. He had a big sophomore year in 2019-20, going for 12.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game.

Coach: Dan Hurley, entering his third year as a head coach at Connecticut and 11th overall. He’s 35-29 with the Huskies in two seasons, and 186-134 overall with two NCAA tournament appearances, both while coaching Rhode Island.

Outlook: To be quite honest with you, this is the one team preview that we’re doing that’s going to be mostly guesswork. At the very least, it’s more like doing a game preview for a non-conference opponent than having actual information on hand from paying attention to how the team has been operating for the past few years. That’s not anyone in particular’s fault, but it’s just how it is since this is Connecticut’s first year back in the Big East since The Reformation cast them down into the AAC.

So we’re guessing at things a little bit without a lot of time spent actually watching the Huskies during Dan Hurley’s first two seasons. That’s fine. Here’s what we can surmise from those two years for sure:

  • Hurley can coach ‘em up on both sides of the floor. UConn was a top 90 KenPom offense in both of his two seasons, and they improved from Year 1 to Year 2. After ranking #129 in defense in his first season in Storrs, Connecticut’s KenPom defensive ranking jumped to #59 in the country in 2019-20. “Well, #59’s not so great,” you say. Well, 1) it’s a big improvement in Year #2, and 2) it’s better than Marquette, so shhh.
  • It appears that Hurley got his offensive efficiency by stressing offensive rebounding. The Huskies were #54 and #25 in the country per KenPom in his two seasons so far. I say that’s where the efficiency is coming from, but cause UConn has not been a good shooting team and they’ve been kind of sloppy. Hurley’s Huskies have never had a top 150 ranking in effective field goal percentage, two point shooting percentage, or three point shooting percentage. In fact, they were bottom third of the country bad at two point shooting a year ago. In addition to that, UConn went from #178 in offensive turnover rate to #249 in Hurley’s second season. That’s really not good, and when you remember that they’re losing Vital and Gilbert, their best passing guys, that’s a problem. Then again, Gilbert was actually part of the problem with a 23% turnover rate himself.
  • The addition of Sanogo, Brown, and Springs to the active roster leans into a Huskies’ strength last season. They were #44 in the country in effective field goal percentage defense last year, and #8 in the country in block rate as a team. Now they’ve got two more 6’9” guys to rumble around down there along side the 6’11” Carlton and the 6’9” Akok, plus Brown at 7 feet even? YIKES. That’s a potentially devastating amount of rim protection, and at worst, it’s 25 fouls to work with in the post.
  • This one is a potential Marquette issue more than a generalized Big East note, but the Huskies don’t allow threes. I don’t mean teams shoot poorly against them, that’s actually not the case. Hurley’s defensive structure appears to be designed to force the ball out of shooters’ hands. Dan Hurley’s teams have been ranked in the top 40 in the country in three-point rate in nine of his 10 seasons as a Division 1 coach, and each of the last seven. The anomaly is his first year at Rhode Island, so that’s both years at Wagner, five years at Rhode Island, and now two years at Connecticut. His teams have actually been in the top 20 in five of the last six seasons and top 30 in all six. You don’t get this kind of consistency without an overarching decision and insistence on something like that. Year after year, no matter what level of D1 or what league Hurley has been in, his teams deny threes. Meanwhile, over the past four seasons, Steve Wojciechowski’s squads have proven to be reliant on shooting threes and making a metric ton of them to acquire their offensive efficiency.
  • For as much as Dan Hurley’s Huskies love crashing the offensive glass, they stink at rebounding on the other end. Two straight sub-240 rankings in defensive rebounding rate for UConn under Hurley’s guidance, and that department has generally never been a strength for his teams. Circling back to the block rate item for a second for reference here, I think it’s safe to say that adding three 6’9” or taller guys to the rotation is probably going to help UConn get some possessions ended faster. Still, it’s weird to see them so good at one end but almost actively bad on the other.
  • We’ve done a lot of praising of Dan Hurley’s ability to coach on both sides of the floor so far here, but here’s a thing that’s a real problem with how he coaches defense: His teams foul too much. At #234 in the country, last year’s Connecticut team was Hurley’s second best team in terms of defensive free throw rate. Six of Dan Hurley’s Division 1 teams have been sub-300 in terms of how often they send opponents to the free throw line. Now, to be clear, free throw rate has very little impact on your overall chance of victory, at least relative to the other Four Factors. However, when you’re out there doing really good at two of the other three on defense, and really great at one of them on offense, you can’t be shooting yourself in the foot like this. The rate itself is almost not the problem so much as the acquisition of fouls by the players bites them in the behind.

That’s all I’ve got for stats based trends from UConn and Dan Hurley. We would be remiss if we did not talk about the more esoteric ideas about the 2020-21 season for Connecticut, namely, their return home. Connecticut is a founding member of the Big East, coming back into the fold to rejoin Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, and Seton Hall in that department. Since they were booted out by their decision to continue to chase FBS football success, things have not gone well for them. Yes, they won that national championship in their very first year in the American Athletic Conference, but that wasn’t a particularly great Huskies team. They suffered their worst loss of the year in their very first ever AAC basketball game!

Anyway, things have gone south for Connecticut since then as Kevin Ollie’s cheating scandals weren’t even actually helping the team on the court. Things have gotten to the point where if you think that the Big East is throwing UConn a life preserver by allowing them back into the conference, well, that’s a defendable position.

But things have gotten better over the last two years under Dan Hurley even before that life preserver was thrown towards them. He appears to have things going in an upward trajectory, and the combination of renewing old rivalries and not jetting halfway across the country constantly for road games is going to be a positive for the program. All three of UConn’s big recruits for this fall are more than happy to tell you that they picked the Huskies because of some effect of the team being in the Big East once again. Husky fans are excited about their team again, and the 2020-21 iteration seems to easily be Dan Hurley’s best team of the three, and the future in general for them looks pretty bright right now.

Does the Big East need a successful UConn to be successful as a league? No, clearly that’s not the case. The last five years have proven that. But having the Huskies around adds an extra level of spice to the proceedings, an extra level of excitement and history and combativeness that the Big East has, quite honestly, been missing over the past five years. I look forward to seeing what they can do and, honestly, I wish them well. Not the best, though. Marquette has that 6-3 all time series advantage to maintain, after all.