When Josh Carlton, Isaiah Whaley, and Tyler Polley committed to UConn, they could have never seen the direction the powerhouse program was heading. Just a few years earlier, in UConn’s inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference, UConn had won their fourth national championship in 2014. UConn narrowly missed the NCAA tournament the following year, somewhat understandable given the level of production that needed to be replaced on the team. Jump forward a year, in the 2015-2016, and things seemed to have gotten somewhat back on track, at least temporarily. UConn won the AAC tournament and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, before losing to top-seeded Kansas.
The start of the downfall. To start the 2016-2017 season, no one needs to be reminded, the Huskies lost buy games to Wagner and Northeastern. The roster was talented, but the performance and results did not reflect that. The heralded freshman “top 5” class was young but supposed to keep the UConn brand rolling. After a tumultuous season in which the team finished 16-17, a mass exodus. Several players transferred, many to other high-major programs. Kevin Ollie and staff brought in the freshman trio of Carlton, Whaley, and Polley. At the time, some said they were not your typical UConn-level recruits. We all know that’s not the case now and as fans, we should consider ourselves lucky these three stuck around when they didn’t have to.
After their freshman season and after enduring another losing season under Kevin Ollie, UConn brought in Dan Hurley to rebuild a broken program. A decision loomed for Carlton, Whaley, and Polley. The coaching staff that had recruited them now gone, would they transfer like many others the season before, or would they hear Hurley out and buy into his program? We all know the answer to that question now – they chose to be part of the solution.
As sophomores, in Hurley’s first season, Josh Carlton won AAC most-improved player and played an important role in the teams limited success, still a losing season, but signs of a turnaround were evident. Polley saw minutes and provided shooting, something every team can always use. Isaiah Whaley, however, quietly worked on his game in the shadows while cheering his team on from the bench, refusing to become a distraction.
Over the summer, before the start of the 2019-2020 season, UConn nation rejoiced as their return to the Big East was announced. Fans and players had to endure one more season in the AAC, but the news reinvigorated a desperate fan base and the team as well. Everyone could feel that success laid just over the metaphorical horizon.
In their junior season, UConn finished their final season in the AAC 19-12 (10-8), but they were riding high and playing their best basketball in March, winning their final 5 games of the season. Josh Carlton still played an important role on the team but had regressed a bit after bulking up in the offseason which seemed to slow him down. Tyler Polley injured his ACL after a career game against Tulane (19 points, 11 rebounds). Isaiah Whaley became The Wrench this season. He went from 3 minutes a game as a sophomore, to nearly 20 mpg as a junior, the teams defensive anchor. UConn looked like a dangerous team that was a threat to win the AAC tournament, but COVID-19 had other plans. The trio had to wait yet another year to reap the rewards of their hard work and dedication. The NCAA tournament, just out of reach because of a global pandemic.
In their senior season, the trio looked to round out their UConn careers in the best way possible, hearing UConn called on Selection Sunday, an NCAA tournament berth. Even in a diminished role, you can see Josh Carlton on the sideline going wild for his teammates. When he does see the court, he makes the most of it. “Angry Josh” as the UConn twitter world calls him, is the best Josh. He comes in and makes his presence immediately known. Playing tough defense, contesting shots, and grabbing every rebound in sight. Carlton knows his role and plays it to perfection. He mentors the younger players and plays aggressive when he is needed, always ready to help off the bench. This is how teams become great. Everyone has a role, and the better you play your role, the better the teams success. Great teams and great teammates understand this, and it is clear Carlton has bought in.
Tyler Polley has also clearly bought in and has been rewarded with winning Big East sixth man of the year. This is no easy task in a league full of talented players. Especially considering that the offseason was primarily rehabbing back from an ACL injury, but that wasn’t going to slow Polley down. He has been a steady presence for the Huskies, shooting between 36-42% from three each year. He has hit huge, momentum changing threes all season long. Without Polley, UConn might not be heading to the NCAA tournament as comfortably. After Bouknight went down early against Marquette, Polley stepped up with two huge road performances against Marquette and Butler. This is what seniors do. Polley understands his role off the bench is to come in and play high level defense and provide outside shooting. However, when Bouknight went down, roles need to change. With limited practice time between games to adjust, Polley took it upon himself and stepped into a bigger role seamlessly to help UConn win these two crucial games. Coming off the bench hasn’t been easy for Polley but similar to Carlton, he sees the bigger picture. Sacrifice a little for the greater good of the team.
Last but certainly not least, Isaiah Whaley, The Wrench. What more can we say about Whaley? Has any player in UConn history improved more over their course of their career? Whaley went from 3 minutes per game as a sophomore to winning Big East co-defensive player of the year, an extraordinary accomplishment. Whaley is everything this UConn team needs; he does every little thing to help them succeed. Whaley has certainly left his mark on the program.
As their senior year winds down these three should reflect on their time at UConn with great pride and hopefully many fond memories. Their careers may not have mapped out exactly as they had envisioned when committing to UConn, but sometimes you need to go through some lows to better appreciate the highs. UConn nation will forever remember Carlton, Whaley, and Polley. A trio who helped set the tone of a program on a mission to reclaim their spot as a national powerhouse in the Big East. But the trio knows there is still work to do.
Next up, they will look to leave their mark on the Big East tournament, and after that it’s time to experience their first NCAA tournament. A fitting reward for their perseverance and dedication to UConn.