As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just a few weeks from now, with the "Champions Classic" getting things rolling on November 9th at Madison Square Garden.
And to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year, all written by college basketball nut and recruiting guru Jacob Polacheck.
We are smack dab in the midst of these previews, with thoughts on Indiana, USC, LSU, Maryland Saint Bonaventure, Colorado State, Florida State and Virginia and last week, we got an exclusive sit down with Bruce Pearl to preview the Auburn Tigers.
Today, it's time to take a look at UConn. The Huskies are coming off their first season in the Big East since 2013 and their first NCAA Tournament appearance of the Dan Hurley.
A loaded squad has the chance to not only get back to the tournament, but do major damage from there.
How it went down in 2020-21:
UConn was the James Bouknight show in 2020-21 with the sophomore guard averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game on 44.7 percent from the field in 15 games played last season. Despite only playing in 15 of the Huskies’ 23 games on the season, Bouknight’s 281 total points on the year were the most on the team.
The Huskies went 11-4 with Bouknight in the lineup last season, but when the 6-foot-5 guard suffered a left elbow injury resulting in surgery in early January, the team was only able to muster up a 4-4 record, finishing the season at 15-8.
The good news is, with Bouknight gone this season, other bright spots emerged around him last year. After sitting out the 2019-20 season following his transfer from Howard, guard R.J. Cole emerged as a key contributor for last year’s Huskies team, averaging a team-high 4.3 assists per game while finishing second in scoring at 12.2 points per contest. Guard Tyrese Martin was also able to have an impact in his first season with the Huskies. After transferring from Rhode Island, Martin’s point production fell from 12.8 to 10.3 per game, but he averaged a team-high 7.5 rebounds per game. He also took on the lead-scoring role in Bouknight's absence, with nine straight double-figure scoring games that ended shortly after Bouknight's return.
UConn went 3-0 in non-conference play with wins over Central Connecticut, Hartford and USC before going 11-6 in Big East play, including four consecutive wins over Georgetown (2x), Marquette and Seton Hall to close out the regular season. The Huskies easily defeated DePaul in the first round of the Big East Tournament, but met their match in the second round, falling to Creighton for the third time on the season.
Despite entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed, UConn was upset in the first round by No. 10 seed Maryland as Bouknight’s 15 points were not enough for the Huskies in a 63-54 loss to end the season.
What You Need to Know About 2021-2022:
Key Returnees: R.J. Cole, Tyrese Martin, Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley, Adama Sanogo, Jalen Gaffney, Andre Jackson, Akok Akok
Key Losses: James Bouknight, Brendan Adams, Josh Carlton
Key Transfers: N/A
Key Recruits: Jordan Hawkins, Samson Johnson, Rahsool Diggins, Corey Floyd Jr.
The Huskies were one of the rare teams not to add a transfer in an offseason filled with movement. Instead, this team is relying on the return of nearly everyone from a season ago, minus the massive production of Bouknight.
UConn will bring back four of five starters from a year ago, including preseason All-Big East second team selections R.J .Cole and Tyrese Martin. Cole was the team’s leading assist man from a year ago, while Martin led the team in rebounds. Reclassified freshman Adama Sanogo also averaged around seven points and four rebounds in what should have been his senior year of high school, and Akok Akok should continue to get better after missing the front half of the season while recovering from major injury.
Also, few programs were able to take advantage of the NCAA's extra year of Covid eligibility quite like the Huskies. Both Isaiah Whaley (8.0 points, 6.2 rebounds) and Tyler Polley (7.5 points per game, 35.5% from beyond the arc) both were set to graduate last year. With the extra year, both decided to return.
Then there’s the Huskies incoming recruiting class, highlighted by four Top-100 prospects in shooting guards Jordan Hawkins and Corey Floyd Jr., center Samson Johnson and point guard Rahsool Diggins. Like Sanogo a year ago, Floyd is another player who elected to leave for college early, reclassifying out of the 2022 class and enrolling this season. With the nation’s No. 9-ranked recruiting class in the nation, Hurley brings in UConn’s highest-rated class since 2016.
It’s likely that it will take multiple players to make up for the lost production of Bouknight, but with Diggins, Hawkins and Floyd in the backcourt, adding a boost to the team’s key returning players, UConn has set themselves up well to be an improved team in 2021-22.
In UConn’s second year in the Big East, the Huskies have a chance to be among the best teams in the conference this season.
After three exhibition games, UConn will open the season on Nov. 9 against Central Connecticut. There are three home buy games, before the Huskies head to the Bahamas to play in a loaded "Battle 4 Atlantis" field. UConn opens against fellow preseason Top 25 team Auburn, and will get either Michigan State or Loyola (IL) in the second round. The other half of the bracket has defending national champion Baylor, Arizona State, Syracuse and VCU.
The plusses and minuses of playing in an event like that are obvious: It's a chance to pick up several marquee wins. Unfortunately, UConn and Auburn have probably the toughest draw in the event, with a first round matchup against each other - and it won't get easier from there.
After two more buy games (Maryland Eastern Shore and Grambling State) UConn will close out non-conference play against a couple of NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago in a Dec. 8 contest at West Virginia in the Big East-Big 12 Battle and then a Dec. 11 matchup against St. Bonaventure in the Never Forget Tribute Classic in the Prudential Center.
It's clear that this staff scheduled an out of conference schedule intended to challenge this team, and in a perfect world line them up for a nice seed come NCAA Tournament time.
UConn then begins Big East play at home versus Providence on Dec. 18 before road games at Marquette (Dec. 21) and Xavier (Dec. 28) to close out 2020. The Huskies start the new year with a Jan. 1 matchup versus Butler at the XL Center before a crucial road game with Seton Hall (Jan. 8) and then a Jan. 12 matchup with St. John’s. The next four games should be manageable, before a huge back-to-back in early February - Creighton at home, and a trip to Villanova between Feb. 1 and 5.
While the schedule is by no means easy down the stretch, the Huskies do get four of their final six at home, including a second showdown with preseason favorite Villanova on February 22nd.
UConn's return to the Big East Tournament for the first time with fans in the stands begins on March 9th - and should be electric.
What to Expect in 2021-2022:
If I had to describe this UConn team in one word, it’s deep. The Huskies return eight of ten players that started in at least one game last season.
Despite the loss of Bouknight, this team should look very much the same as last season, with newcomers Hawkins, Johnson, Diggins and Floyd looking to make up for the lost production.
A major X-Factor this season will be the health of junior forward Akok Akok, who appeared in only seven games last season following a breakout 2019-20 campaign. After averaging 5.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks as a freshman, Akok was only able to appear in seven games in 2020-21, playing limited minutes and only posting averages of 1.3 points and 0.4 rebounds per game.
If Akok can get back to full strength and the newcomers can live up to expectations, UConn has the chance to be even better than a year ago and make a run at a Big East title.
And if the Huskies can win the Big East, you know there's no doubt they will have success come tournament time as well.
For more college hoops coverage, make sure to follow Jacob Polacheck on Twitter @JacobPolacheck
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