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There will be time to unpack the season and sort out the roster, but as the UConn men’s basketball team returned home from the NCAA Tournament, it was still in the aftermath of the season-squelching loss to Maryland in the NCAA East Regional.
Assuming everyone has passed from denial to anger, skipped over bargaining and is now somewhere between depression and acceptance, let’s strive for some closure and move on from the grief.
The Huskies were never in this game, from a talent standpoint. They remained within striking distance and lost by only nine, 63-54, strictly due to their hard playing, rebound hawking, loose-ball chasing. That can, and has, won UConn a lot of games under Dan Hurley, but to win a game like this, it takes shot-making. The Huskies have not had a lot of that.
“We really struggle against teams that switch a lot,” Hurley said. “There’s not a ton you can script when teams switch, it becomes matchup ball, and we just didn’t have a lot of guys who can win one-on-one matchups. We weren’t really decisive in going by people. When you miss that amount of close-in shots, I think it rattled us.”
The Huskies shot a season-low 32.1 percent, and despite an astounding 18 offensive rebounds in the first half, as many as four on a single possession, they could not keep pace.
“We battled,” Hurley said. “We played the way we played the whole year. I wish we would have guarded better. When you get 18 offensive rebounds in first half and miss that amount of layups at the rim, it had a demoralizing effect on us.”
This has been a recurring theme for UConn this season, for several seasons, in the games the Huskies have lost. They grind and work, but miss point-blank shots when contested. In this game, they also missed a lot of open looks. Even so, they might have been within a possession at the end, but made only 5 of 12 free throws.
Strategically, UConn didn’t have a defensive answer for Eric Ayala (23 points) nor Maryland’s five-out offense. But in the end, UConn’s season ended the way Dr. Naismith intended for games to be lost and seasons to end, by the inability to put the ball in the basket.
Grit and toughness are embedded in the culture now. The Huskies don’t get pushed around. But as next season approaches and the roster turns over, this is where the emphasis should be: identifying guys who can create and make shots consistently. This was the first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years, and it was uplifting for the state, but it won’t get easier. The talent must be upgraded further.
Here are some other takeaways from UConn’s season-ending loss:
There’s no sense debating whether James Bouknight is ready to play in the NBA. He’s not. No sense debating whether he will be drafted high enough and should leave school. He will, and he should. That’s how it works.
But everyone has probably heard the story of Rip Hamilton stopping in each assistant coach’s office to say his goodbyes following UConn’s elimination in 1998, much deeper in that tournament But after he made the last stop, at Jim Calhoun’s office, he came out saying, “I’m coming back.” Hamilton stayed to get stronger, better and, when he went the NBA, he was better prepared, left Storrs in ’99 with a national championship ring.
Bouknight, who went 14-for-41, including 1-for-13 on 3-pointers in three postseason games, could use more time to develop his strength and refine his game (at both ends), more exposure to the big moments in which he did not shine this month, another chance to finish what he started at UConn. It won’t happen in today’s world, so UConn will have to build a team that can do better than .500 without him in 2021-22.
Adama Sanogo had an impressive freshman season, though his actual productivity, 7.3 points and 4.8 rebounds, was limited by foul trouble. He’ll have to stay on the floor longer next season. Andre Jackson’s freshman season was limited by injuries and the pandemic. With a full offseason to prepare, he will need to make a massive jump next season. Jalen Gaffney, as he goes into his junior year, will need to be more consistent, play with more confidence and assume a leadership role. The program needs him to be one of the best players on the team. Of course, everyone needs to improve, but these three could be the core of the next good team. Add Akok Akok, if he can make a complete recovery from his Achilles surgery by next season.
Beyond the arc
UConn shot 33.5 percent on 3s during the season, including 3-for-14 against Creighton and 7-for-23 vs. Maryland in the last two games. If Tyler Polley uses his extra year of eligibility at UConn, he’ll need to shoot better than 35.5 percent, as he did earlier in his career. If Hurley and his staff get into the transfer market to fill open roster spots, they need to find shooters.
The last word
From senior Isaiah Whaley: “It’s really tough. It feels weird, like it hasn’t ended yet. … I view the season as a big stepping stone, a big step for the program. I’m proud of everybody for sticking to it. We went through a lot this year, especially with the COVID pauses, and everybody went through stuff individually, but we stuck to it and we just kept fighting. I see it as a big step for the program and it’s only up from here.”
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com