When UConn men’s basketball head coach Dan Hurley holds up a T-shirt with “45:07″ on it, or displays that timestamp on the clock before and after practices, the four digits weigh heavy on R.J. Cole’s mind.
They represent the final 45 minutes, 7 seconds of UConn’s 2020-21 season which saw the Huskies’ promising and progressive year end abruptly at the hands of Creighton (Big East Tournament semifinals) and Maryland (first round of the NCAA Tournament).
It also proved to be a most challenging stretch for Cole. UConn’s starting point guard missed the final 5:07 against Creighton after suffering a concussion, and scored just nine points on 3-for-12 shooting against the Terrapins a week later.
The number now serves as a motivator for the Huskies as they return to Storrs for the summer session. Cole takes it personally.
“The last 40 minutes of the whole Maryland game, I didn’t play well at all,” he said. “I feel like I should have been able to finish the game against Creighton, and I could have went on to play better against Maryland.
“Just that right there fuels me the most.”
If UConn hopes to avoid a similar fate this season, Cole identified two things that need to change. The Huskies need to improve at closing out games down the stretch; they led Creighton with under four minutes left in the tournament semifinal. And at times, Cole said, the team didn’t have anyone to “rally the troops, and bring the team together.”
Finishing games effectively will certainly be a team effort. But the latter goal — leadership — can be more individualized. Now in his third year in Storrs, and second as an eligible player, Cole is now a graduate student and hopes to be the type of role model UConn needs.
“Somebody has to lead the team, and know you can look at somebody like, ‘Okay, he has our back, he’s going to get us to the next level, and keep reaching us to get higher and higher,’” he said. “So I always want to keep plugging away at that so my teammates know I’m always going to be there for them, no matter what it is.”
Cole, a Howard transfer who played for Hurley’s father, Bob Sr., at St. Anthony’s in New Jersey, took half a dozen games to settle into his role with the Huskies. From Jan. 11 to March 3, he finished each of the 12 games played in double figures, averaging 15 points.
His hot stretch came after a dysfunctional start to the season, which saw nine total UConn games postponed or cancelled due to COVID-19, and games in the usually rowdy Gampel Pavillion played in relative silence without fans.
“I was finally just starting to catch my niche,” he said. “That year was very abnormal. Me having to sit out, and then go into COVID, it was very tough to adjust right away. So, yeah, I was very inconsistent at the beginning of the season, but that [stretch of 12 games] was just me plugging away and sticking to my routine, my work. All the adversity I went through was able to push me to where I went to toward the end of the year. Now I’m just trying to continue to build on that for what’s coming up this year.”
Cole hopes to be a more efficient shooter (he shot 38.7% from the field last season) and up his scoring average (12.2 a year ago). He doesn’t want an increased point total to come at the expense of the team, however. Cohesion, chemistry and winning surpass his personal goals.
“I just can’t wait,” Cole said. “I’m going in with a better confidence about myself and my ability this year, so I’m just ready to see how it plays out.”
Cole understands the privilege of playing iat UConn. Former players have reached out to him, and spoken to the entire team, about what UConn means to them, and what it means to play for a winning program. Now Cole, looking to have a similar impact, is doing the same.
He recently commented on four-star recruit Alex Karaban’s Instagram in an attempt to woo the uncommitted 6-foot-7 forward to Storrs. Cole wants to win in the present, but understands that it’s his responsibility to build a foundation for the program to keep winning, too.
That’s what the best leaders do, after all.
“When coach talks to us, he talks to us about being an ambassador,” Cole said. “Say I was to leave, and I come up to a game, I can be like, ‘I got this kid to come here.’ And that’s what you want to be ... you want to build that relationship with the new guys, because you want to see the school succeed.”
Shawn McFarland can be reached at email@example.com.