As the dust continues to settle after one of the most chaotic off seasons in memory (>1700 players enter the transfer portal per Verbal Commits), the UConn roster seems to be set and it’s time to start thinking about the no Bouk, new look Huskies.
It’s a little early for a season preview, but it’s always college basketball season in my mind. So let’s dive in.
Entering the 2021-2022 season, UConn seems to be a team that is garnering a lot of hype. The Huskies return 74% of their minutes from last season, but they will be a whole new team without James Bouknight. Most preseason rankings have them somewhere between ~18-30, probably a fair assessment. However, UConn is also entering the season as a bit of an enigma. Understandable. It’s tough to predict how a team that, at times, was so heavily reliant upon one player can somehow be better without said player. The importance of James Bouknight to the UConn program cannot be overstated. Bouknight’s meteoric rise has put UConn back on the map. As Hurley said, “he made it cool to go and play at UConn again” when he was selected with the 11th overall pick by the Charlotte Hornets in the NBA Draft last night.
The looming question for the Huskies entering the upcoming season... how do they manage without Bouknight? For anyone who watched UConn last year, you don’t really need stats to know how important Bouknight was to the team. Let’s take a quick look anyways to see the impact he really had and what the Hornets are getting. The Huskies were 11-4 with Bouknight in the lineup, and just 4-4 without him. His presence on the floor alone seemed to give confidence to the rest of the team, something that can’t be measured. Bouknight finished the season with an offensive rating of 106.2 (KenPom). He ranked 41st in the nation in terms of percentage of possessions used, a measure of personal possessions when the player is on the court (basically giving credit to or blame for how the possession ended). In a highly related statistical category, Bouknight took 30.8% of UConn’s shots while on the floor, ranked 51st nationally. The list goes on, but suffice to say Bouknight was did anything he could to help UConn win. For the season he averaged 18.7 PPG and 5.7 RPG in just shy of 32 minutes of action per game.
Where does UConn turn to replace this high level of usage and production? The answer, of course, is that no one player can replace an NBA lottery pick. The success of this season will be a collective effort that is dependent upon an offseason of individual and team development, along with an incredible incoming freshman recruiting class (ranked 14th in the country and 2nd in the Big East).
Let’s take a look at the roster going into the season and who can we expect the biggest contributions from. Of course, we may have to revisit this a little closer to the season, but it’s always fun to speculate.
Note: Hyperlinks are to individual player UConn MBB highlights
The UConn front court is going to be a force to be reckoned with. UConn’s roster boasts six players standing in at 6’8” or taller. These players bring a range of skill from the post to beyond the three-point line, and did I mention shot blocking?
The front court got a huge boost with the return of Isaiah Whaley, the Big East co-defensive player of the year, and Tyler Polley, the Big East sixth man of the year. The Wrench brings the energy on defense and a much-improved offensive game. What’s the over under for made three pointers Whaley makes this season? Last season he went 8-23 (34.8%) from deep in 23 games. Perhaps Whaley needs another new nickname this season as his offensive game continues to evolve – I’m thinking PicknPop Pork Chop.
Polley is a hybrid forward who brings back a smooth shooting stroke. He was a bit tentative last season, understandbly so coming of an ACL tear, but still shot just shy of 36% rom deep. Polley will also look to be more aggressive and attack the basket this season. He is at his best in attack mode, you can’t crowd a shooter that can also drive. Just ask Marquette and Butler. If he can replicate those types performances more consistently, it will be hard to keep Polley off the court.
Adama Sanogo looked like one of the best big men in the conference at times last season, even as a freshman. Sanogo averaged 7.3 PPG and 4.8 RPG while averaging just 17 minutes a game last season. An offseason of development could have Sanogo poised for a breakout year.
Add in the return of Akok Akok and you’re looking at a ferocious front court with size, speed, athleticism, and depth. Before going down with an Achille’s tear his freshman season, Akok was an anchor for the defense. Between Akok and Whaley, good luck getting a shot off in the lane. Even without Akok last season, UConn finished 6th in the country as a team, averaging 5.3 BPG. Look for this team to replicate that success. The depth doesn’t stop here though.
Don’t sleep on Richie Springs and incoming freshman Samson Johnson. Hurley has repeatedly praised Springs for his patience and dedication to the process. He also described him as one of the best rebounders he’s ever coached. And Johnson? He is still climbing and constantly improving. He jumped from the lowest to the highest rated freshman recruit in UConn’s 3-man class over the course of his senior season. In other words, Johnson is starting to find his untapped potential. Minutes will be hard to come by in this crowded front court but having this level of depth and versatility is never a bad thing.
What about the back court? RJ Cole seemed to catch some uncalled-for flack at times last season. All he did was put up numbers, scoring in double figures in 16 of 23 games, while shooting 38.6% from three-point range. The guy was born to score, which was perhaps a little harder to do when playing with someone of Bouknight’s caliber. I would look for Cole to make a big jump this season as a leader and as a scorer.
Speaking of big jumps, look for Jalen Gaffney to jump out of the gym this season. This offseason, Gaffney has been vocal about how he needs to play with more confidence and aggression, to showcase his elite athleticism. Yes, elite. Go to a game and watch him in warmups and you might mistake him for Andre Jackson throwing down acrobatic dunks. Gaffney showed flashes last season, scoring in double digits 4 times coupled with some unreal finishes at the rim. He is a capable scorer and playmaker. He may be able to play off the ball more this season too, something that suits his game. A more consistent Gaffney would help solidify UConn’s backcourt.
Gaffney and Cole will be pushed by incoming freshman guard Rahsool Diggins, who oozes confidence. He is a natural leader, ideal for a point guard. I have a feeling his confidence and defensive effort will help him garner minutes as a freshman. Beyond his abilities on the court, Diggins is already becoming a fan favorite thanks to his recruiting prowess. After his commitment, he helped reel in Samson Johnson, Jordan Hawkins, and most recently, Donovan Clingan. Perhaps he has a career in coaching after his playing days are over.
On to the wings. Tyrese Martin may benefit the most from Bouknight’s departure. Martin looked comfortable and confident as one of the go-to guys in 8 games without Bouknight last season, averaging 14.5 PPG in that span. Like Cole, Martin proved he can score in bunches when he gets going. He will have to improve his finishing at the rim and his consistency from game to game, but Martin will be a key veteran player this season. It’s possible we may see him become more ball dominant, playing some minutes as a de facto point guard, something he said he is comfortable doing.
Andre Jackson, another hybrid type wing-point guard, is a walking highlight reel waiting to happen. Yet somehow, passing is probably his best skill. He showed this at times last season but needs to be more consistent and improve his jumper to take the next step entering his sophomore season, things he has been working on all off season. Foul trouble limited his minutes last season as well. Remember, Jackson didn’t get the usual freshman summer development due to the pandemic and battled injuries throughout the year. He is finally healthy and working like a man on a mission. I think we can expect big things from Jackson.
Last, but certainly not least, freshman Jordan Hawkins has incredible talent. He is silky smooth on offense and the comparisons to Bouknight have already started. Hawkins said Ray Allen is one of his favorite Huskies and that he tries to model Allen’s game. A combination of Ray Allen and James Bouknight sounds pretty good, but I’m not sure that’s a fair expectation to put on anyone, let alone a freshman. I will say that in limited footage, Hawkins looks the part, scoring with ease from all three levels. Not to mention he put up impressive numbers at perennial powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hawkins work his way into the starting lineup at some point this season.
Overall, the theme for this year’s UConn team will be depth which will hopefully translate to more high pressure defense and fast breaks. No single player can replicate Bouknight’s performance, but the Huskies feature a combination of size, speed, athleticism, and depth that is hard to come by. The players have bought in, and Hurley has continued to deliver on his promise, following his tried-and-true rebuilding method. The overall talent level has increased each season, can the Huskies make a splash in year four of the Hurley era? I certainly think so.