Season Preview: Connecticut Huskies
Last Season: 16-17, No Postseason
Key Losses: Amida Brimah, Kentan Facey, Rodney Purvis, Steve Enoch, Vance Jackson
Key Additions: Antwoine Anderson, Eric Cobb, Mamadou Diarra, Josh Carlton, Tyler Polley
Last season was the worst in thirty years for the UConn Huskies. It was a perfect storm of an injury epidemic, bad luck, and unrealized potential. There was no reprieve from the horror show during the offseason. The Huskies graduated three seniors and lost another three players to transfers. On top of all that, their star recruit, top-50 guard Makai Ashton-Langford, decommitted and wound up at Providence.
Coach Ollie has a laborious task in front of him. Luckily, the remaining fall signees in the class of 2017 stayed loyal, and several other newcomers were gathered in the spring and summer to fill out the roster. The result is a team that has a load of high-potential players. Most of whom are also complete question marks.
One sure thing is Jalen Adams. He’s 6’3”, athletic, and often prefers to be a distributor rather than a scorer, though he can do that at a stellar rate, too. As the main man on last year’s team, Adams was one of four players in the country to average 14 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds a game. The other three? Freshmen sensations Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith, Jr., and Iowa State talisman Monte Morris.
Here’s how Adams stacked up in sophomore year compared to a certain pair of Husky titans:
Adams (16-17): 14.4 PPG, 6.1 APG, 4.3 RPG, 43.1 FG%, 35.0 3PT%
Napier (11-12): 13.0 PPG, 5.8 APG, 3.5 RPG, 38.9 FG%, 35.5 3PT%
Walker (09-10): 14.6 PPG, 5.1 APG, 4.3 RPG, 40.3 FG%, 33.9 3PT%
It shouldn’t need to be mentioned the leaps those other two players took as an upperclassman (albeit, Napier’s senior season outpaced his stellar junior campaign). For the Huskies to reach the NCAA Tournament, Jalen Adams will have to continue his growth and mimic the performances of Napier and Walker. Unfortunately, Adams hasn’t gotten nearly the national respect he deserves, though he is preseason first team in the AAC. Don’t be the least bit surprised if he plays at an All-American level.
Joining Adams in the backcourt are Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert, two members of the Huskies’ vaunted 2016 recruiting class that had very different experiences last season. Gilbert was expected to be a major contributor from day one, and played well until suffering a torn labrum in the third game of the season. Meanwhile, Vital was recruited more for depth and long-term stability. But with all the injuries, he wound up playing 28.5 minutes a game. And responded well to the responsibilities. Both have the potential to become solid three-point shooters and lockdown defenders, with Vital farther ahead on that side of the court. Graduate transfer Antwione Anderson brings much-needed experience and depth to the roster. He should see solid minutes as part of the guard rotation.
While the Huskies will frequently employ three-guard lineups, they’ve got some players of note on the wings. Chief among this group is Terry Larrier, a 6’8” swingman that tore his ACL in the fourth game of last season. At this time last year, Larrier’s ability as a one-on-one scorer and athleticism had him as a 2017 first rounder in several projections. Should he bounce back from the ACL injury, he’ll be an integral part of the offense. Freshman Tyler Polley comes out of Florida as a four-star recruit. He’s long, lanky, and has the ideal body to add muscle and become a force as a versatile forward. The most enigmatic newcomer on the entire roster is JuCo transfer Kwintin Williams. The 6’7” Alaskan has a reputation as a freak athlete. Many of his dunks have gone viral. But he doesn’t have much basketball acumen besides that. The development of Williams as a basketball player, and not just an athlete, will be an intriguing story.
The frontcourt holds the keys for UConn’s true potential. It could also lead to a direct repeat of last year’s struggles. There are no returning players for the Huskies that saw the majority of their minutes at power forward or center. It’s a collection of mostly unknown variables, though the potential is there. A trio of freshmen are the most important variables for the short-term and the long-term. Mamadou Diarra is a redshirt freshman that missed last season with chronic knee problems, though he is healthy for his second stint on campus. True freshmen Josh Carlton and Isiaiah Whaley are both 6’9” and come in relatively unheralded. However, both, particularly Carlton, are well-developed on the offensive side of the ball. Learning defense is always difficult for big men at the college level. This trio will have to do this quickly to team with Cornell graduate transfer David Onuorah and JuCo product Eric Cobb, both of whom are wide bodies and limited offensively, but solid defensively. Getting production and development from this diverse group of post players will be crucial to UConn’s success.
Starters: G Adams, G Gilbert, F Larrier, F Diarra, C Cobb
Rotation Players: G Vital, G Anderson, F Onuorah, C Carlton
Depth: F Polley, F Whaley, F Williams
UConn is likely to see a lot of zone from their opponents this season, as they don’t have a true sharpshooter. However, they have multiple players who have the potential to become deadeyes from beyond the arc. Adams, Gilbert, Vital, Anderson, and Larrier are all competent shooters who need to take the next step to being consistent threats from deep to keep teams honest. Terry Larrier is also the perfect player to sit at the free-throw line in a zone, as he can hit the mid-range shot easily and is an improving passer. The players listed above, minus Anderson, are the core of the team and will do the bulk of the scoring. Any production from the freshmen on the offensive end will be a welcome development. Josh Carlton may have the most potential of the group to become a high-level scorer, as he comes out of high school well-developed as a scorer and an above-average passer.
Last year, despite the injuries and growing pains, UConn was an elite defensive unit, finishing as one of the best twenty teams in the nation on that side of the ball. Much of that had to do with perimeter defense, led by Rodney Purvis, and the shotblocking expertise of post defenders Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey. All three have graduated. The highest defensive ceiling on this year’s team may belong to Vital. He’s a tenacious and quick defender that combined with Purvis last year to keep other teams’ backcourts from feeling comfortable. Defense in the paint will be by committee, as the height and shot blocking prowess UConn has long been known for doesn’t appear present. It will be defense by committee for the Huskies in the paint. David Onourah comes from Cornell with a reputation as a good defender. Cobb also has the big body necessary to hold ground in the paint.
One important note is that this preview makes no mention of Sid Wilson. The Bronx native was a member of the 2017 class, but committed to St. John’s out of high school. However, at the time, there was a lot of buzz that he truly wanted to be a Husky. Less than a couple months later, despite taking summer classes, Wilson transferred to Storrs. Despite never even officially practicing for the Red Storm, the NCAA has treated this as a normal transfer, and is forcing Wilson to sit out the 2017-18 season. There is no reason to think that a waiver would be granted to allow Wilson to compete. While the rules
For UConn, this season will be feast or famine. Behind Jalen Adams, it’s entirely possible the team comes together and improves to the point where they make the tournament and even compete for a spot in the second weekend. It’s also projectable for the team to not grow and improve enough and for Adams to burn out from having to do everything. For Kevin Ollie, this is the most crucial season of his career. Coming off the terrors of last season and the offseason, Ollie has to be ready to step up to the plate and guide his team to a successful season.