5 things to watch for as UConn men's basketball season starts

Photo of David Borges

There is a lot we already know about the UConn men’s basketball team.

We know just about all of the players, since the Huskies didn’t welcome in any new ones via the transfer portal. The only newcomers are four freshmen — and we know that they are pretty good.

We know James Bouknight is gone, an NBA lottery pick. But, with all due respect to transfers Josh Carlton (Houston) and Brendan Adams (George Washington), he’s UConn’s only major loss.

We know Dan Hurley-coached teams almost always get better from year to year, so a return trip to the NCAA Tournament and perhaps a win or two in the Big Dance would be expected.

And yet, with so many known quantities, plenty of questions remain for the Huskies. Here’s a look at five storylines for the UConn men this season:

With Bouknight Gone, Who’ll be the Huskies’ Go-To Guy?

It’s doubtful any one player will replace Bouknight’s 18.7 points per game. It’s a virtual certainty that no one will replace his smooth, dynamic athleticism and his impact on the Huskies’ lineup (11-4 with him, 4-4 without him).

So who’ll be the Huskies’ leading scorer? And who’ll be the guy UConn turns to when it needs a big basket in the waning seconds? It could be R.J. Cole, a natural scorer and good (38.6 percent) 3-point shooter. Still, Cole missed some huge free throws last season, and went through some stretches of poor play.

It could be Adama Sanogo, the Huskies’ best player, per Hurley, and through whom much of UConn’s offense will run. But the 6-foot-9 center needs to improve his foul-shooting (57.7 percent) and, for that matter, work on staying out of foul trouble so he’ll even be on the floor in crunch time.

Maybe Akok Akok is ready to be the player who showed so much promise as a freshman, before a torn Achilles sabotaged his sophomore season? Maybe a veteran like Isaiah Whaley, Tyrese Martin or Andre Jackson, each with offensive flaws. Maybe a freshman like Jordan Hawkins is ready to step up and be Mr. Big Shot?

Or maybe it’ll be more of a clutch-shot-by-committee. Hurley can always ride the hot hand: think Tyler Polley last season at Marquette or, for that matter, even Sid Wilson two years ago against Wichita State. Fact is, the Huskies could have about six or seven different players averaging between 8 and 14 points per game. Cole and Sanogo will be the offensive focal points, but a depth of weapons could be UConn’s best bet to make up for the loss of Bouknight.

Will the Real Andre Jackson Please Stand Up?

Jackson was one of the Huskies’ most ballyhooed incoming freshmen last season, a national top-50 recruit who chose the Huskies over his hometown Syracuse, among others. Some thought his freshman season could go similar to Bouknight’s: a constant upward arc with occasional hiccups but mostly budding stardom.

Off-season knee surgery put him behind the eight-ball off the bat, COVID-19 shutdowns, starts and stops didn’t help his rehab or development either, and ultimately, a broken wrist cost him about six weeks of the season.

When he returned, Jackson showed flashes of his boundless athleticism, brilliant court vision and ball-hawking defense. He needs to shoot better (11.8 percent from 3), but Hurley believes Jackson can be one of the nation’s best frontcourt defenders. If he’s anything close to Bouknight’s trajectory as a sophomore, the Huskies have another star on their hands.

What Can We Expect from Akok Akok?

The Achilles tendon tear in February, 2020 appeared career-threatening. Akok’s relatively quick return to the floor last season, returing to game action in January, was a feel-good story all-around. Ultimately, he returned to early, his production (particularly his defense) not up to snuff. He hardly played the final month of the season.

Hurley has been saying for a while now that Akok wouldn’t be back to the shot-swatting, athletic Akok of his freshman year until 18 months removed from his surgery. He’s now nearly 20 months removed. Reports from practice have been generally positive. His teammates are convinced he’s 100-percent back. Hurley recently said that Akok is “good,” but hinted that the 6-9 forward needs to be more of a 3-point shooting threat. If Akok can return to his freshman form defensively and give the Huskies some offensive punch, that’s as good as getting anyone off the transfer wire.

How Good Can This Team be Defensively?

For all the talk about offense, it’s really all about defense for Hurley and the Huskies. Last year, UConn was No. 29 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, allowing 92.5 points per 100 possessions. UConn could be — should be — even better this season.

The Huskies have the returning Big East Defensive Player of the Year in Whaley, one of the league’s top shot-blockers and perhaps the country’s best ball-screen defender. Cole was often stellar defensively last season — just ask Creighton star Marcus Zegarowski. Hurley believes Jackson could be one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, with his size, length and athleticism, and Martin cuts a similar jib.

Add to all that the potential for Akok to return to being a shot-blocker supreme, and 6-10 freshman Samson Johnson’s length and athleticism, and subtract Bouknight (who for all his prowess, will never be confused with Michael Cooper defensively), and UConn could be one of the top 10 defensive teams in the country.

Can UConn (or Anyone in the Big East) Beat Out Villanova?

The Wildcats are the runaway favorites to win the Big East this season and are a Final Four favorite. And why not? Big East Preseason Player of the Year Collin Gillespie is back for a fifth year after suffering a season-ending injury last March. He’s joined by veteran stalwarts Jermaine Samuels, Justin Moore, Caleb Daniels and some talented newcomers.

Oh yes, and they’re coached by freshly-minted Hall of Famer Jay Wright. Not bad.

But are we ready to simply hand the Big East crown to ’Nova? Not yet. Its best player from a year ago, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, is in the NBA. Depth could be an issues: oft-injured guard Bryan Antoine is once again sidelined, at least to start the season. And is it fair to ask if Gillespie may take a while to regain his form after last year’s injury?

Villanova deserves to be the Big East favorites. But the Wildcats aren’t a dead-solid lock to win the Big East — and UConn may be their most capable challenger.