This was the R.J. Cole the UConn men have been waiting on, plus more takeaways from the Huskies’ big win at Xavier

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Dom Amore, Hartford Courant
·5 min read
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This was the version of R.J. Cole the UConn men have been expecting: a shooter, a scorer, a facilitator and a leader on and off the court.

Dan Hurley has been demanding it, and he upped the ante when he took Cole out of the starting lineup at Providence and Xavier.

“He’s been pushing me a lot lately,” Cole said. “The last couple of games he’s been really at me to get me to this point. Coach has really been supporting me, pushing to find another gear for me.”

Cole, the transfer from Howard, has found the going at UConn — the place he’d dreamed of playing since he attended Jim Calhoun’s camp as a child — difficult at times. Most transfers have, and even some of the most successful needed a big chunk of their first year to find their voice.

For Cole, moving from the MEAC, where he was player of the year, to the Big East after a year sitting out, was going to be a process, a major adjustment, even if he tried to take it in stride as “just basketball.”

“To me, it’s basketball,” he said. “Big East, anything, it’s basketball, you’ve been doing this your whole life. So competition is what you want to be a part of. For me, it’s just figuring out how I can fit in, and how I can incorporate myself within the flow of the game here and I think I found it. I’ve been struggling early in the season to get that flow, and I think I figured it out.”

Cole had 24 points and seven assists, both season highs, coming off the bench Saturday in the Huskies’ 80-72 win at Xavier, a consequential win in the NCAA Tournament picture. And he took a leading role in the meetings and soul-searching that led from the loss at Providence to this bounce-back.

Cole was 7-for-14 from the floor, 5-for-7 on threes at Xavier. In the last four games, he’s 19-for-40 from the floor, raising his season percentage from 33.7 to 37.7. His 3-point shooting is up to 38.1, about where the Huskies need him.

Now, about the win. The Huskies (9-5, 6-5 in the Big East) climbed from No. 64 to 58 in the NCAA NetRankings, and 38th in the Ken Pomeroy rankings, “Bubble” territory. All their remaining six games are against teams in the top 110 in NetRankings, with a make-up against Villanova, St. John’s or Xavier possible. So there’s ample opportunity to play their way in.

Counting the win at Marquette on the night he got hurt, UConn is 5-4 without James Bouknight, and as frustrating each loss can be in the moment, who wouldn’t have signed for that? Add Bouknight and this version of R.J. Cole, and the Huskies could get something done over these next three weeks.

Buttoned down

Coaches can only do so much. But one thing the better ones do is find the right buttons to push. Hurley found them, and not only with Cole. Maybe it was the team meeting, the story of a former player (Jarvis Garrett) playing through injuries and challenging his own hobbled players, Isaiah Whaley and Tyrese Martin, to do the same. Most likely it was all of the above, a pulling out of all the emotional stops.

In any case, Hurley pushed the right buttons, touched his players’ pride and the Huskies responded.

Akok returns

When Akok Akok returned from his Achilles injury on Jan. 9, he started with a dunk, but he didn’t stay in the game long. Over three games, he played 11 minutes and it was obvious he didn’t have the explosiveness he would have if he were 100 percent recovered, and was particularly exposed in the St. John’s game. Then he was kicked in the shin and the bruise cost him a couple of more weeks, and it looked as if he would not be healthy enough to help the Huskies this season.

But something happened this week when Akok returned to practice. He moved a little better and Hurley, searching for a spark, found a niche for him. He got in for a total of 10 minutes at Xavier, and made three baskets, one a three. Don’t look for the dynamic, shot-blocking Akok you saw last season, that’s for next year, but there now appears to be a way he can contribute and give UConn a lift.

Jackson’s start

Andre Jackson’s line was modest, five points, four rebounds, three assists in 24 minutes. But it looked like he made a difference, one more rebounder, one more facilitator, a player the defense had to respect. Jackson had to sit with foul trouble, but what he’s shown so far is easy to like.


Both UConn and Xavier have been limited to 14 games due to multiple COVID-related shutdowns, and both would like to squeeze in a makeup game against a Quad 1 or Quad 2 opponent before the end of the regular season. The Big East would like to find more games for conference members that will not make it to the full 20. The UConn-Xavier game at Gampel was postponed; maybe there’s a day a makeup can be fit in.

Dom Amore can be reached at