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In a season of starts and stops, the UConn men restart Saturday, entering a stretch drive that will, at last, include freshman Andre Jackson.
“He’s a real talent, and we’ve got to play him, I’ve got to play him,” coach Dan Hurley said, “and let him play through some [mistakes]. We’ve got to get his talent on the court, it’s a fine line, though, because you’re trying to win against veteran teams.”
The Huskies will face Seton Hall, Hurley’s alma mater and one of the rivals from the original Big East, at noon on Fox. UConn (8-3, 5-3 in the conference) will still be without James Bouknight, its best player, who is at least a week away from returning from his elbow surgery, and Akok Akok, whose return from a ruptured Achilles has been slowed by a bruised shin.
But Jackson, out six weeks with a fracture in his left wrist, is ready to return after about five days of full practices.
“Being able to play him in spurts, three- or four-minute spurts,” Hurley said, “just get him experience. He’s a really talented guy and we’ve got to get him comfortable on the court.”
The Huskies’ other freshman, Adama Sanogo, has already worked his way into a starting role, averaging 11 points and five rebounds over the last three games. Jackson, 6 feet 6, was recruited as the heir apparent to Bouknight, to gain experience this season and become the go-to player next year.
Jackson, though, missed most of the summer with a knee injury. When he recovered, UConn lost two weeks of practice in November, which would have been important development time for a freshman. In four early season games, Jackson played a total of 33 minutes.
Now he gets thrown into the fire against Seton Hall, which as been one of the most successful teams in the “new” Big East era. So far in 2020-21, the Pirates (10-8, 7-5), too, have been up and down, but they have been able play more games in a steadier schedule. They’re a formidable team, with wings Jared Rhoden (14.7 points, 6.7 rebounds) and Sando Mamukelashvili (17.7, 7.1 rebounds). One of the tallest teams in the country, Seton Hall used its height in a matchup zone defense that held Providence to 43 points on Wednesday night, snapping a three-game losing streak.
“The matchup zone is a weapon for them,” Hurley said. “They’ve got a potential player of the year in Mamukelashvili. They have two wings who are all-league players, and really good depth and play at point guard.”
Playing two freshman against Seton Hall is “scary,” Hurley said, but it will be an investment in developing the Huskies as the season grinds on.
“For this year, the way we envisioned this thing,” Hurley said, “Bouk, Akok and ‘Dre were all huge parts of the Year Three climb up the mountain.”
Bouknight and Akok have been practicing in a limited way and progressing, but Hurley didn’t give an estimate of when they might return. UConn’s next game, at Providence on Wednesday, would be just about four weeks removed from Bouknight’s surgery to correct bone spurs.
Getting more games
The Huskies latest suspension of play was due to a positive COVID-19 test among the officials working their game against Butler on Jan. 26. They were able to get back to work full bore on Monday. Meanwhile, two more games were postponed, and the schedule is very tight between now and the Big East Tournament, with little room to make up all three of the conference games lost. But UConn has played fewer games than any Big East team except DePaul, and the conference would like to prioritize makeup games for teams that haven’t played as many as others.
“There’s been some conversation about adding one, trying to add a marquee game back,” Hurley said. “It would make things incredibly tight for us, and would put us in a situation you would rarely see a college team in. But selfishly, to get a quad 1 [opponent] chance would be really nice for us. We aspire to play in the NCAA Tournament, so squeezing in a quad 1 game would be appealing, we just have to balance out player welfare and not run these guys into the ground.”
Villanova, Xavier and St. John’s are the opponents UConn missed. After Saturday’s game, UConn plays at Providence and Xavier, at home against Providence and at Villanova, so a lot more will be known about where this season is headed by Feb. 20.
Seton Hall and UConn played 63 times in the old conference, UConn winning 45. But this renewal could get spicy, like a twice-a-year slug of hot sauce. Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard has at times sounded less than enthusiastic about the addition of UConn, and Hurley has used his New Jersey ties to nab several recruits, including Sanogo, from the Pirates’ turf.
“I’m a competitor,” Hurley said, “I want the best people in my league. I would be thrilled to have a program, a big name, big brand, big potential to come into my league and raise the level of competition, because I think that’s what most great competitors would want. ... I’ve got a lot of respect for the success Kevin has had, but we would look at that differently.”
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com