Fans of the HBO TV adaptation of the series Game of Thrones can probably (if asked) still talk your ear off about how anomalously bad the most recent and final season of the prestige show was, even while acknowledging the show’s body of work was excellent.
In the last 21 years, the Huskies have 4 national titles and yet have been indisputably a bottom half of the American Athletic Conference team more years than not since the most recent title. You can see how I arrived on the GoT comparison.
To zoom in even further, consider that between March 2014 and the present Husky basketball has a national championship and is also in real danger of finishing their time in the AAC with 4 straight losing seasons (although the NCAA has removed the 2016-17 and 17-18 seasons from the official records).
Regardless of how tonight’s game goes, or even how the season finishes, morale is high for Husky fans as they move into the new Big East, starting in the 2020-21 athletics year. Put aside how you feel about UConn’s online fans and related sentiments about the AAC, and you can understand why they’d be excited about playing in a more regionally appropriate league.
But I also won’t repeat the same lazy basketball writer takes about the AAC being worse for losing a program that will likely finish their time in the league with 1 NCAA tournament appearance in the last 6 seasons.
There are theoretically possible scenarios where 2nd year head coach Dan Hurley leads this team to a crazy hot finish to the season, but in all likelihood this is a bottom half of the league team.
One stat kind of tells the whole story, specifically that the Huskies highest usage, upperclassmen guards: senior Christian Vital and junior Alterique Gilbert, are both shooting under 40% from the field. Nearly 35% of all UConn shots have come from Vital or Gilbert.
In Vital’s case that stat is somewhat misleading as he’s been good at getting to the free throw line and making those freebies, while leading the Huskies in scoring (14.2 points/game) and rebounding. Gilbert, who missed most of his first 2 seasons of college due to left shoulder injuries, is shooting a dismal 33.5% on all field goals and 29.9% on 3-point attempts.
Since the season-ending knee injury to stretch big Tyler Polley, Hurley has gone with a 3-guard lineup, inserting freshman James Bouknight the last 2 games. Bouknight, a former national top-100 recruit from Brooklyn, has scored in double figures in 3 of his last 5 games and is a good bet to make a future All-Big East team.
The other standout Husky freshman has been Akok Akok, who like Caleb Mills enrolled for the 2019 spring semester in order to acclimate to the collegiate game. Akok is a work in progress offensively, as evidenced by shooting under 50% as a big man but is already one of the best shot blockers in the country (2.9 blocks/game). You could do worse to build around Bouknight and Akok in the long-term.
There are 3 Husky players who at this moment are averaging at least 1 block per game and the team is 2nd nationally in defensive Block %, an interesting contrast to a UH team that’s been one of the best in the country at avoiding getting their shot blocked.
In terms of frontcourt offensive threats, junior Josh Carlton has developed into a fairly reliable scorer down low, averaging 10 points/game (2nd on the team) and is tied with Vital for the team-lead in rebounding. The match-up of Carlton against Chris Harris Jr and Brison Gresham will be an important one in deciding tonight’s outcome.
For a team located in such a basketball centric part of the country, its remarkable how bad UConn’s non-conference schedule shook out. To wit, 7 of the first 12 teams on the Huskies schedule are outside of the current KenPom top 200 and they still didn’t go undefeated against those teams (losing 96-87 at home to St. Joes). The Huskies do have extremely close neutral site losses to Xavier and Indiana, along with a mid-November home win over Florida, but there’s not much ‘meat’ in their 10 wins.
The Huskies are a great offensive rebounding team (39th in Offensive Rebound %) and as mentioned earlier a great shot blocking team. But ironically, they’re terrible at preventing opponents from grabbing offensive rebounds (228th in opponent off. reb %) and getting their own shot blocked (258th in off. block %).
One final interesting point is tonight’s game will only be the Huskies 4th true road game of the current season and the trip to Houston will be their longest one by a wide margin.
Turning a corner for this young Cougar team means avoiding a let down after playing their best 40 minutes of basketball up in Wichita last Saturday. There are areas where the Huskies can and likely will for stretches make this game competitive, but this can and should be a game where the Cougars demonstrate they’re the team to beat in this conference.