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2021-22 Big East Basketball Summer Check-In: Connecticut Huskies

What does Year Two in the Big East but Year One without Bouknight hold in store for the Huskies?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 10 Jimmy V Classic - UConn v Indiana Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Team: Connecticut Huskies

2020-21 Record: 15-8, 11-6 Big East

2020-21 Big East Finish: Third, three games in the loss column ahead of Seton Hall & St. John’s but tied in losses with Creighton.

Final 2020-21 KenPom Ranking: #21

Postseason? Earned a #7 seed in the NCAA tournament, but fell to #10 seed Maryland, 63-54, in the first round.

Key Departures: There’s no other place to start this list than with James Bouknight. UConn’s leading scorer last season (18.7/game) was also #3 in rebounds per game and #2 in assists per game. The Huskies were 11-4 with him in the lineup, with the only losses coming to the two teams in front of them in the Big East standings and Maryland in the NCAA tournament. Without Bouknight? Just 4-4. Bouknight elected to leave school after his sophomore season, and for good reason.

Brendan Adams played in 16 of their 24 games with six starts and averaged over 20 minutes per game, even if the rest of his stats (4.5 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists) didn’t bowl you over. Josh Carlton appeared in more games than Adams, but only averaged 11.3 minutes per outing and had even less of an impact on the stat sheet (3.5 points, 3.7 rebounds). Adams transferred to George Washington after his junior year, while Carlton moved on to Houston as a grad transfer with a COVID-bonus season.

Key Returners: After Bouknight, the next six scorers on the roster all return for the 2021-22 season. That’s everyone else who averaged at least six points per game, so the Huskies are not going to be short on options. R.J. Cole is the leading returning scorer at 12.2 points/game as well as the most accurate returning long range shooter on the team at 39% last season as well as the top overall assists man. Cole led the team with 4.3 helpers per contest and was the only Husky to average more than two assists per game. Tyrese Martin is #2 amongst returning scorers at 10.3 per game, but he was #1 in rebounding last year at 7.5 caroms per game.

Isaiah Whaley was the only UConn player to start in every game. At 6’9” and 230 pounds, he was mostly out there to rebound and defend, and he did both well to the tune of 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. Adama Sanogo had a nice freshman year with 7.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while starting in 20 of 23 appearances. Marquette fans will remember Tyler Polley for absolutely destroying the Golden Eagles at Fiserv Forum, even though he was a bench guy almost all year long and just chipped in where he could (7.5 points, 2.0 rebounds). Jalen Gaffney (6.1 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists) and Andre Jackson (2.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists) round out the rotation guys that return, and it seems clear that Jackson had the clearly more disappointing 2020-21 season of the two. The former top 60 prospect was getting minimal minutes to start the year and then missed seven games due to an injury. He ended up contributing a pretty decent amount of minutes by the end of the year, but I think we can say that no one was extremely happy with out his first season in Storrs went.

Key Additions: Connecticut brings in the #14 recruiting class in the country and the #2 class in the Big East. All three prospects are top 60 guys, with Jordan Hawkins getting headliner status. The 6’5” guard comes in ranked #48 in the country by 247 Sports and is the best recruit in the state of Maryland in the Class of 2021. Samson Johnson (6’10”, 205 pounds) is just barely behind Hawkins at #52 in the country, and he’s also the top prospect in the state of New Jersey for this recruiting class.. Rahsool Diggins (6’1”, 160 pounds) is then just barely behind Johnson at #55.

Coach: Dan Hurley, entering his fourth season at Connecticut and 12th overall as a Division 1 head coach. He has a record of 50-37 with the Huskies at 201-142 overall.

Outlook: I don’t think there’s any way to judge Connecticut’s first season back in the Big East as anything but a resounding success. Dan Hurley guided the Huskies to his first NCAA tournament appearance as their head coach and the program’s first since 2016. They were 5-1 when they lost Bouknight for that eight game stretch, and they kept the show on the tracks long enough until their star guard could get back in the lineup. They then went on a tear to end the season and end up right back on the “wait, how good are they” train heading into the postseason.

Sure, no one’s excited about losing a third game to Creighton in the Big East semifinals, and bowing out after one game in the NCAA tournament isn’t what anyone wants. But the point of returning to the Big East for UConn was to get back into the national conversation on a regular basis, and through one season, mission accomplished.

Now the question becomes whether or not Hurley can put the team into the NCAA tournament for consecutive seasons for the first time since Jim Calhoun wrapped up his tenure with back-to-back tourney appearances in 2011 and 2012. Specifically, we’re wondering if he can do that without James Bouknight. On one hand, Connecticut was .500 team without Bouknight last season, which is a bad sign for succeeding now that he’s gone. On the other hand, he’s just not on the roster at all this season so the Huskies will go into the year with on-court plans other than “James will figure it out.” You can’t miss what you never had, and we’ll have to wait and see if that makes a difference.

In theory, the Huskies are deeper now than they were last year. Sure, they lost three regular rotation guys off last year’s roster, but with three top 60 prospects coming in behind them, maybe there’s not much of a drop off in terms of overall team abilities. The only thing we’re left wondering is whether we’re going to see a “everyone pull a little bit of weight” to make up for the loss of Bouknight or if Hurley lets someone dominate the game like Bouknight did in terms of usage. A top 45 usage rate per worked last year because James Bouknight was That Dude. Does UConn have a new That Dude? I don’t immediately see it.... but that doesn’t mean that Hurley and his staff don’t have someone in mind.