Return of Jordan Hawkins, Andre Jackson Jr. has UConn men’s coach Dan Hurley buzzing about potential

It was a welcomed return for Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson Jr. to practice after both have had to spend time agonizing on the bench to start the season.

“That was the best practice we’ve had,” Dan Hurley said when it was done.

In his fifth year as coach of the Huskies, it’s clear that Hurley has missed his two injured starters, both of whom he is expecting to have breakout seasons. And that’s despite a 3-0 start and a top 25 ranking.

Jackson, the junior co-captain and vocal leader, has been itching to return after he broke his pinky finger in mid-October. Hawkins, the sophomore eager to meet the expectations of a leading scorer, entered the concussion protocol less than 10 minutes into the season-opener when he hit his head on the court after soaring for an offensive rebound.

“Just bringing two guys of that caliber back in, just everything ramped up,” Hurley said. “The energy level, the competition, it was good.”

Hurley said a return for Friday’s game “looks good for Jordan, but we’ll see how he’s feeling.” Jackson’s status will be a “game day decision.”

“Really, I’m just thrilled with what the group has been able to do without them, so that now, trying to implement such critical pieces back in, I think their mentality has got to be in these first couple games here, ‘How can I help this team play better?’” Hurley said.

“Keep it real simple. Just give us good, solid, quality minutes on the court, not expect to be playing at their fullest potential in terms of having all of their superpowers on display. It’s not realistic.”

If both are available, Hurley hopes the additions will help the team play better in the early stages of the game where there have been struggles, including a 5-of-25 start from the field against Buffalo on Tuesday.

“I’m so happy they’re back,” freshman Alex Karaban said. “They were able to go live and just having them back, having them get us better. Just seeing the joy that they play with really was like an adrenaline boost for us. I love both of those guys, I love playing with them and I can’t wait for them to come back healthy.”

Site: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs

Time: 8:30 p.m.

Series: UConn leads, 1-0.

Last meeting: Dec. 20, 1997 – UConn 93, UNC Wilmington 55.

TV: FS2, John Fanta and Donny Marshall.

Radio: UConn Sports Network on 97.9 ESPN, Mike Crispino and Wayne Norman.

Just keep shooting: Hurley and staff built a roster with the intentions of becoming a shooting team with a capable threat of stretching the floor to give their best player, Adama Sanogo, space to work inside. But, so far, the numbers haven’t lined up.

“We can’t take the bad ones early in the game,” Hurley said. “To be honest with you, minus some early game bad threes that we probably shouldn’t take in the first two or three minutes before you’re really sweating and into the game, I think we’ve missed a lot of good threes that I think we’ll (start to) make.”

Until San Diego transfer Joey Calcaterra came in and made two deep balls in a row off the bench, the third 3-pointer of Sanogo’s career stood as the only one to fall through the game’s first 17 minutes. The Huskies went into the half shooting 3 of 16 from beyond the arc, and finished the game having made 6 of 23.

“I feel like it’s the nervousness, maybe,” said Karaban, who made 1 of 4 on Tuesday. “We’re still getting a little nervous jitters just because pretty much everyone’s new on this team and we’re missing two veteran players. I think the shots will start falling, we just got to get adjusted to everything; they’ll fall.”

Connecticut’s Clingan becoming fan favorite: When Donovan Clingan, the 7-foot-2 center from Bristol, was substituted into the season-opener against Stonehill, the crowd inside the XL Center erupted. Hurley joked that he “didn’t know if Ray (Allen) or Rip (Hamilton) walked in,” it was so loud.

“I didn’t let that get in my head, I was like, ‘That’s cool, but I got a game to play,’” Clingan said. “It’s just a blessing, it’s a great feeling, I just gotta keep producing and make the fans happy.”

Playing at UConn has been one of Clingan’s dreams that grew clearer as he dominated the Connecticut high school scene, catching the attention of the entire state as he was triple-teamed by players feet below him. As far as the pressure of the fans, Clingan tries not to think about it.

“Maybe deep down, when he gets back to his room at night he might have some anxieties, I think we all do,” Hurley said. “Even the strongest have those vulnerabilities that you have to deal with, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he carries himself. He’s so alive, and I just think he’s just – when you’re as tall as he’s always been, and you’ve always had people kind of just always looking at you, gawking at you, you get very comfortable in the public. It’s been his whole life story he has people staring at him so I think he’s used to the attention.”

Scouting the Seahawks: Friday’s opponent has gotten out to a 1-2 start against tough competition, falling to No. 1 North Carolina by 13 in its season-opener and Oklahoma by 21 a week later. UNC Wilmington is a team coming off a 27-win season last year with veteran players who can rebound.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for their coach (Takayo Siddle) and his culture, and their identity because they turn you over, they rebound the heck out of the ball; they play as hard as anyone we’ll play this year,” Hurley said. “And they’re really athletic, one through four, we’re gonna have our hands full on the perimeter trying to guard the ball.”