The “new” Big East has been superb over the last seven seasons. That much is evident as the league has consistently ranked among the Top 4 in the nation, and Villanova has cut down national championship nets twice during the span. Yet, I also think it’s fair to say the conference lacks some of its old allure without its former powerhouses. Newcomers like Butler, Xavier, and Creighton have each had their successes since joining the high-major ranks, but the return of UConn basketball will be the headline story for the Big East in 2020-21.
It has been far too long since the Huskies last graced the Madison Square Garden floor amidst the spectacle that is March Madness. Even though the Huskies won a national championship as a member of the American in 2014, their presence in that league never felt right. They belong in the Big East.
But winning in the “new” Big East will not be an easy task. For starters, the Huskies have struggled in recent years, finishing outside of the AAC Top 4 in each of the past six campaigns. The AAC is recognized as just the nation’s 7th-best conference, and UConn’s average finish of 5.86 in the league standings over seven seasons was disappointing.
Additionally, while Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh no longer run the Big East, the conference is still loaded with talent. Programs such as Seton Hall and Providence have risen to consistent prominence while former mid-major darlings Butler and Xavier are NCAA Tournament mainstays. Oh, and Jay Wright‘s group out in Philly is still pretty darn good too.
It will not be easy for UConn to quickly return to its former glory in the nation’s best basketball-centric league. Thankfully, the Huskies timed their re-entry with perhaps their most talented roster since winning the 2014 national title. With an elite sophomore returner, underrated transfer additions, and a strong incoming recruiting class, the Huskies have the potential to finish in the upper half of the league and reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2015-16.
On the flip side, though, some of the issues that plagued UConn last season might still rise to the surface. When it comes to setting expectations for the Huskies, it’s worth mentioning their injury concerns, shooting woes, and young depth. An increase in schedule difficulty also needs to be accounted for.
It’s easy to be optimistic given how well they finished last season with five straight wins. But was that stretch just a fluke, or is UConn ready to return to the national spotlight? Without any further ado, let’s dive deeper into the Huskies’ roster and their possibilities this season.
A sophomore sensation leads the way.
UConn’s roster features several talented pieces, but rising sophomore James Bouknight is easily the most notable. A 6-5 guard with bouncy athleticism and a deadly mid-range game, Bouknight was electric as a freshman. He averaged 13 points and 4.1 rebounds per game during his inaugural season in Storrs, and he pretty much met all the first-year expectations of a Top 100 recruit. He will need to take a leap as a sophomore, though. With Christian Vital (16.3 points) departing, Bouknight is now the Huskies’ primary scoring option.
Despite UConn bringing back the majority of its rotation from last season, Bouknight is the only returning double-digit scorer. While new arrival R.J. Cole (as well as several others) should help in this area, it’s fair to say that Bouknight will need to shoulder a large portion of the team’s offensive burden as a sophomore. Whether or not he rises to the occasion will be a determining factor in whether the Huskies can compete at a high level in the Big East.
Bouknight was excellent last season, and I am a huge believer in his potential to emerge as not only one of the best players in the Big East but as a dark-horse All-American candidate. He brings a well-rounded offensive game to the court. He is a respectable threat from three, deadly from the mid-range, and finished at a high rate at the rim. While solid as a self-creator, Bouknight was at his as an off-ball cutter.
He moved without the ball very well, and his leaping ability led to positive plays at the rim. Those two attributes contributed to quality rebounding, quick interior finishes, and highlight-reel alley-oops:
UConn is going to be far more than just a one-man-show. But it’s hard to avoid thinking that the Huskies will only go as far as Bouknight can take them. If he hits his ceiling as a sophomore, they could go a long way. If he struggles to adapt to being the No. 1 offensive option against a tougher level of competition, though, then the Huskies could find themselves mired in the bubble conversation rather than being a possible second-weekend team.
Cole, Gaffney fill out the backcourt.
Bouknight is an off-ball scorer more than anything else. While he can create for himself off-the-bounce, he isn’t much of a distributor. That is evident in that he dished out just 36 assists relative to 50 turnovers as a freshman. While it is reasonable to expect his assist-to-turnover ratio to improve with experience and a higher usage rate, Bouknight will not be UConn’s primary ball-handler. That will be where R.J. Cole and Jalen Gaffney come in.
Cole, a 6-1 transfer from Howard, is perhaps favored to land the starting point guard job heading into this season. Over his two seasons with the Bison, Cole averaged 21.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. He is a deadly 3-point shooter (career 193-for-521, 37.0 percent) and does a pretty good job taking care of the ball. Cole is more scorer than distributor, but offensive versatility makes him an intriguing option either starting or off the bench.
The big question surrounding Cole is how his game will translate against much tougher competition. While having practiced with the team during his sit-out year should help, taking the leap from the MEAC to the Big East shouldn’t be overlooked.
To date, Cole has only played 6.0% of his collegiate games against KenPom Top 100 teams. This includes five games versus non-D1 opponents. Considering every Big East team finished in the Top 100 last season, Cole is taking a gigantic leap in competition. On the plus side, though, these statistics also show that (albeit in a limited sample size) Cole’s scoring efficiency dipped against better teams but he flashed more of his playmaking. That could prove pivotal as he will be tasked with lead guard duties in Storrs.
If Coach Hurley decides to go with a more traditional point guard, Gaffney will likely get the starting nod. The rising sophomore was a fringe Top 100 recruit out of high school and could be in for a breakout. Gaffney experienced his fair share of struggles as a freshman but brings solid playmaking chops to the court. He should also be able to improve on his 26.4 percent shooting from distance. Gaffney is already a solid defender and showed flashes of excellence when attacking the basket.
Regardless of if Cole or Gaffney starts this season, the two guards should cover the vast majority of lead playmaking minutes for the team.
Vets headline the frontcourt.
UConn backcourt looks good on paper but has a few questions. Can Bouknight be the go-to star on a tournament team? How will Cole adjust to the Big East? Is Gaffney ready to take a leap? The Huskies’ frontcourt, conversely, looks to be among the most rock-solid nationally as long as it stays healthy. This group brings back four key pieces as well as adds a couple more from the 2020 recruiting class.
Josh Carlton is perhaps the most notable as he was healthy and started every game last season. A senior fixture that ranked 20th nationally in offensive rebounding rate a year ago, Carlton figures to reprise his role as the full-time starting center. In addition to his glass-cleaning, the 6-11 big posted a highly-respectable 5.2% block rate as a junior. While not an elite scorer (7.8 ppg), Carlton impacts both ends of the floor. He might not be a perfect fit in Coach Hurley’s system but he is a good player.
Next up in the frontcourt is another senior in Isaiah Whaley. Though he came off the bench for the first 24 games, Whaley was an advanced metrics darling last season, leading the Huskies in Bayesian Performance Rating (BPR). For reference, BPR measures “a player’s overall value to his team when on the floor.” Whaley started the final six games of last season and averaged 13.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game in that role. He was undervalued tremendously last season and should parlay his strong finish into a stellar senior year.
Additionally, the Huskies are hoping to bring back fully healthy versions of Tyler Polley and Akok Akok at some point this season. Both are coming off serious injuries but are big-time players when able to stay on the court. Polley, who suffered an ACL tear, is fully cleared and will be ready for the season. The 6-9 senior appeared in 15 games last season, averaging 9.5 points and showcasing his ability to stretch the floor. He is a career 97-for-247 (39.3 percent) shooter from 3-point range. With his floor-spacing, Polley will compete for a starting spot.
Akok is a similar game-changing big as he can knock down perimeter jumpers as well as defend the paint on the other end of the floor. The rising sophomore might have a harder time making an impact this season, though, as he is not expected to take the court until at least December. He is still working his way back from an Achilles injury suffered in February. Before the injury, Akok averaged 5.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game as a full-time starter across 25 contests.
UConn’s frontcourt is not only talented but very experienced with three seniors leading the way. Most notably, they protect the rim at a high rate and clean the glass consistently. It’s also worth noting that Akok could be a stellar midseason addition if he returns to his prior form quickly. The only thing potentially holding the Huskies’ frontcourt back from being elite is their injury history from last season.
If one or more of the aforementioned four go down, though, UConn boasts a pair of solid freshmen that could be thrust into action. Adama Sanogo (No. 78 recruit) and Javonte Brown (No. 172) will both be fighting for rotation minutes during their inaugural seasons and have bright futures ahead. Both fit the mold of rim-protecting bigs in the Hurley scheme.
Wing options abound, including a star frosh.
When it comes to discussing incoming freshmen joining the Big East this season, the conversation typically starts with Dawson Garcia of Marquette. A versatile 6-11 forward set to fill a starring role right away in Milwaukee, Garcia is the clear preseason choice to be the conference’s most impactful first-year player. With that said, though, UConn boasts an incoming star that could perhaps compete for that claim throughout the season.
Andre Jackson, an uber-athletic wing ranked as the No. 50 overall player in the 2020 recruiting class, is that star. I am typically hesitant to place high expectations on a true freshman but Jackson could be a perfect fit on UConn’s roster this season. He is well-built, crazy athletic, and makes big-time plays on defense just as often as he does on offense. Jackson brings positional versatility to the floor and will give Coach Hurley plenty of lineup variations to work with. He can play 2-through-4 and makes his impact without needing to score.
While Jackson is talented, he will face stiff competition to land the starting “3” spot on the wing. Rhode Island transfer Tyrese Martin, most notably, is a strong candidate to land a starting spot while rising junior Brendan Adams is a proven reserve. The 6-6 Martin is fresh off averaging 12.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game for Rhode Island last season. He is currently recovering from a quad injury but is supposed to return to practice soon.
Adams is an inconsistent offensive performer but can be quite deadly when on his game. Now entering his junior season, it would be a great time for him to take the next step. UConn went 10-2 in games when Adams scored in double-figures last season (9-10 in all other games) as he is a true X-Factor off the bench. Already a strong defender, becoming more consistent offensively could change the trajectory of the Huskies’ season.
As it stands, Martin is the safe bet to start on the wing given his experience and overall talent level. This would leave Jackson and Adams to split reserve time across a few different positions. Regardless, all three should see significant playing time right away. Richie Springs, who sat out last season, is also a contender for wing minutes as a redshirt freshman.
Overall outlook? Wait and see.
UConn is one of the most difficult teams to project heading into this season. On paper, the Huskies are talented and should be near the top of the Big East’s second tier (behind Nova/Creighton). They boast one of the best sophomores in the country, a couple of solid guards next to him, an elite (and deep) frontcourt, and their wing rotation is more talented than it is given credit for. Additionally, head coach Dan Hurley is a solid leader that took Rhode Island to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances before heading to Storrs.
Seeing UConn picked third in preseason Big East rankings would not be a major shock. Even though that would be a higher in-conference finish than all but one of their AAC seasons, the talent and coaching appear to be there to make that happen. With the Big East losing so much talent top-to-bottom this offseason, there is an opportunity for UConn to come in and immediately return to national prominence. Bouknight will be a preseason pick for First Team All-Conference and its frontcourt can easily match the physicality of the rest of the league.
It’s easy to be optimistic.
On the flip side, though, UConn was fairly mediocre last season. The Huskies finished just fifth in the AAC and were ranked 52nd in the final KenPom rankings. And while Coach Hurley is bringing in six new pieces, only one has consistently faced tough collegiate competition to this point. As a result, almost half of the Huskies’ projected rotation for this season will either be untested or inexperienced against high-major competition.
That could spell trouble considering the Big East is a far tougher league than the AAC.
It would also be a mistake to overlook Christian Vital’s graduation. He was UConn’s best player last season while averaging 16.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 2.5 steals per game. While Bouknight should be able to fill Vital’s “Batman” role, who will then step into the “Robin” spot? It’s a legitimate question to ask. Alterique Gilbert, even with his struggles last season, is another piece that the Huskies will need to replace.
The road will not be easy for UConn this season. While its ceiling is competing for the Big East title and easily reaching the NCAA Tournament, its floor could leave the Huskies without hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. This is a tough team to project. No matter what, though, this season will be an exciting one as it marks UConn basketball’s return to the Big East.
Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business. Originally from Wisconsin.