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Before the UConn men even stepped into Gampel Pavilion Friday night, they began to experience what was missing last year. Fans were gathered outside enjoying the street festival, and it was obvious there would be a big crowd.
“That was awesome,” coach Dan Hurley said. “It’s a big-time basketball school and they haven’t seen Husky basketball in a long time.”
Ultimately, First Night morphed into Worst Night, thanks to technical difficulties. The basketball capital couldn’t get two baskets raised and lined up. After the women’s team scrimmaged four-on-four, half court, with many fans already on their way out of the building, Hurley called it a night.
“In advance of the event, the reinstallation of the stanchion was rehearsed multiple times and completed successfully in less than five minutes,” UConn said in a statement. “We regret what happened and hope the students in attendance still had a good time.”
Hurley had planned a First Night scrimmage aimed at getting his players, the newcomers and second-year Huskies in particular, their one preseason chance to play in front of a crowd. The UConn men have scheduled no exhibition games but will play two “secret scrimmages” against Division I opponents.
“[Playing in front of crowds], it’s always a separator for teams,” Hurley said. “It’s a separator for athletes. Who’s got the stomach to play when the lights are bright and have a packed house? A lot of guys are practice all-stars who can’t translate it on the floor. That wasn’t an element in our sport last year [due to COVID-19 restrictions]. Guys who love the big lights, love the big moments will step to the forefront.”
The UConn men last played before a true Gampel crowd on March 5, 2019, a victory over Houston. There were about 9,000 in the building Friday and nearly every seat that was unobstructed and available was filled. It was student’s only Friday, but UConn plans 100 percent attendance for the season, which begins for the men Nov. 9 vs. CCSU.
Hurley envisioned a “showy” event, light on defense to make sure no one got hurt. He’s interested to see who might have the “wow” factor. All he was able to show was a mini, impromptu slam dunk contest as restless fans began to leave Gampel, the energy sucked out of the building.
UConn has a few weeks to get the equipment ready as Hurley gets a team with high expectations set for the 2021-22 season. Freshman Rahsool Diggins and grad student Tyler Polley were out with minor injuries, Polley a sore ankle, Diggins a knee injury that could keep him out a couple of weeks.
“We’re a little bit banged up,” Hurley said, “because we’ve been going so hard for so long. We had asked then to keep it open, kind of like an all-star game. Don’t do anything bizarre.”
Bizarre was a good word to describe this First Night, much anticipated after it couldn’t be staged last year.
Meanwhile, the Huskies have competition everywhere, especially in the back court as practices continue.
“It’s a real competition right now,” Hurley said. “Tyrese Martin has definitely been the most consistent beyond R.J. [Cole] there on the perimeter. Every day, it’s Andre [Jackson] and Jordan [Hawkins] and Jalen [Gaffney] and Tyler and Tyrese, and then Corey [Floyd Jr.] is obviously young. The competition to start or be at the top of the rotation is much different from when we first got here [four years ago]. A guy like Jordan coming in in Year One or even last year is probably a Day One day one starter because he’s so talented on the perimeter and with what we lost, but that’s still working itself out.”
Hawkins, the freshman from DeMatha Catholic, is one of the players Hurley will look to in replacing the dynamic James Bouknight, now in the NBA. Hawkins brings the pure shooting ability, “a beautiful shooter, not just a catch-and-shoot guy,” Hurley said.
“If he’s going to be that good offensively, you’d be more willing with some of his mistakes defensively because it’s going to give Adama [Sanogo] and R.J. more room to operate. ... Between his shooting, some of the things [freshman big man] Samson Johnson does athletically, how graceful and fluid he is, and Andre will obviously flash his athletic ability, maybe those three guys combined will do some of the Bouk stuff.”
With a wrench thrown into his First Night plans, Hurley and the Huskies are looking to arrange an open practice for students and season-ticket holders, something they have done in the past. One scrimmage will be at Harvard Oct. 23, according to Stadium.com’s Jeff Goodman, with another to be scheduled.
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com