At 2-0, UConn has the look of a rejuvenated program
STORRS – If there was one play that’s symbolized the optimism and excitement around the UConn men’s basketball team, it came in the second half on Sunday.
Cruising toward an easy, 94-66 demolition of UMKC, grad transfer Tarin Smith, who scored a game-high 22 points on an impressively efficient 10-of-12 shooting, had a wide open lane for a breakaway dunk. Instead of padding his point total, Smith turned around, found big man Eric Cobb running the floor, and fed him for a slam of his own. New head coach Dan Hurley, after preaching the importance of togetherness is his introductory press conference, jumped in the air and starting waving his arms to the lively crowd of 7,261 at Gampel Pavilion. All is currently well at this moment in Storrs.
“That was big time,” Smith said. “I told (Cobb) earlier if he’s open I will find him. We had a similar play in the last game, but I got fouled before I was able to get it to him. Today, thankfully I was able to find him and he dunked it.”
“We were thrilled to get the win, and thrilled to be better than we were Thursday night,” noted Hurley. “I thought we showed a killer relentlessness for longer stretches.”
Yes, it’s only two games. But at 2-0, and after a horrid two seasons which culminated in Kevin Ollie’s firing, any positive step is being embraced around the program.
What’s new under Hurley? First of all, the UConn’s pace. Over the past two seasons, the Huskies’ offense often fell into a dribble, dribble, dribble, shoot-at-the-end-of-the-shot-clock slog. Hurley has his guards, particularly Smith, Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert, pushing the ball up-court on not only turnovers, but made baskets as well. Adding that to the full court defensive pressure they’ve implemented, the Huskies have a combined 47 fast break points in their first two games, basically a month’s worth last season.
Speaking of Gilbert, his return after missing nearly two seasons due to shoulder surgeries has helped open up the floor for Adams, who found himself the victim of defensive traps for much of last year. Not having to face a double team at the top of the key will allow Adams (20 points, 7-of-10 shooting) to find space in driving to the basket, his offensive strength.
“(Defenses) really can’t just lock in on one player now,” Adams said. “It makes it easier for guys like me and Christian (Vital) to be comfortable out there.”
Then there’s UConn’s outside shooting, a topic last season which made national headlines for all of the wrong reasons. While still not a strength, the improvement is evident. Smith, in particular, has shown the ability to create his own shot, inside and outside of the paint. On Sunday, the Huskies shot 53 percent and made 12 of 27 three-point attempts.
“Offensively, we weren’t really expecting these guys to shoot it that well,” UMKC coach Kareen Richardson said. “They shot the lights out and played a complete game.”
One area of concern for Hurley is rebounding. Last season, Vital, a 6-foot-2 guard, led UConn in rebounding and did again on Sunday with 10. That, simply, cannot be a regular occurrence. If the Huskies are to have success in the 2K Classic at MSG next week (the UConn-Syracuse winner will play the winner of Oregon-Iowa on Friday), they can’t be pushed around in the paint. Cobb and Josh Carlton, who each struggled last season, both came into training camp in significantly better shape, determined to erase the memory of 2017-18. They combined for 17 points against UMKC with Carlton adding four offensive rebounds.
The overall early returns are certainly encouraging for the Huskies (remember, they started 0-2 in 2016-17 with losses to Wagner and Northeastern at Gampel). While it’s way too early to say if the NCAA Tournament is in the Huskies’ future, it’s a safe bet they won’t be 14-18 again.
Games like Sunday’s is what the program, and especially its fan base, has been craving for. A trip, basically, down memory lane. Their hope, now, is that it continues.