The American Athletic Conference, like most college basketball leagues across the country, gives out awards annually for its best player, best defender, best coach as well as host of other honors.
What the American doesn’t do, is hand out the award that UConn senior guard Christian Vital is most likely to win: biggest trash talker.
“I’d say me,” Temple guard Quinton Rose said with a laugh when asked who would win such a theoretical contest. “But Vital is definitely in there.”
Vital likes to talk, both on the court and off. And he likes to get under other players’ skin, though not in any particular menacing way.
“It’s definitely fun. It’s just competing at the end of the day. When we get off the court it’s all love,” Rose said. “It’s the competitive nature we all have.”
The reality of elite prep school competition and the summer basketball circuit means that before they even get to college many Division I basketball players on opposing teams are very familiar, often friendly, with each other.
If anything, that tends to lead to even more friendly verbal fire.
“Me and him we’re cool. But yeah, he’s very fired up in the games,” Cincinnati forward Jarron Cumberland said of Vital. “He talks a lot in games.”
Vital also likes to talk before games in layup lines, after games in postgame handshake lines, and at most moments in between. When he’s on your team, it’s endearing. When he’s on the other team, well, it’s not always fun.
“I’m glad he’s on my team. He’s like that bug on the court, high-energy guy, intensity, would definitely do anything to win,” says Alterique Gilbert, his backcourt mate at UConn.
A modern day John McEnroe, firing himself up with his comments as much as talking to anyone else in particular, Vital makes no apologies for his ways.
“That’s just a part of sports. There’s a lot of passion, a lot of energy, a lot that goes into the preparation,” Vital said. “You want to go out there and show emotion when you compete.
“I think that’s the way it should be. No one wants to go to a quiet game,” Vital added.
So remember that when UConn coach Dan Hurley, now in his second year guiding the Huskies and his second year dealing with Vital, says that Vital has changed for the better as they begin the 2019-20 season. Vital may be more mature, more controlled, more aware of his outbursts, but he’s still unlikely to be very quiet.
“As an older player, without trying to lower my standards of how you have to carry yourself and how you have to direct your intensity and your efforts, there’s just a certain way you have to handle yourself all the time,” Hurley said of Vital’s on-court style. “It’s just something Christian, as he’s gotten older and more mature, is handling himself better in general.”
Vital, a 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds, both of which ranked second on the team, last season as a junior. The New York native who prepped at St. Thomas More in Oakville has scored 1,228 points in his collegiate career, more than all but 35 players in UConn history.
And that came after Vital nearly went to UNLV. He committed to join the Runnin’ Rebels only to change his mind after a coaching change in Las Vegas.
If he had any issues with his current coach, they’re apparently gone.
Hurley and Vital have talked about a meeting after last season in which they cleared the air between them. The coach and player had a few differences of opinion at various times on and off the court last season. It wasn’t anything overtly hostile, they say, but the two needed to come to some kind of agreement.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a good relationship,” Hurley said.
There was some speculation that the 2018-19 season might be Vital’s last at UConn. He and Hurley perhaps weren’t seeing eye-to-eye, and Vital had entered his name into the NBA Draft once before.
“I kind of had one foot out the door,” Vital admits. “But I wasn’t ready to give up on my college career and my teammates’ careers as well.”
With a renewed dedication to the Huskies, Vital sat down with Hurley and agreed that perhaps his trash talking efforts and similar vehicles for self-motivation needed some tweaking.
“Now I need to be able to look at things from a different lens,” Vital said. “For not only myself, but for my teammates.”
His teammates already see a difference in Vital this season, and it has nothing to do with cutting down on the 30-foot jump shots he so loves and Hurley so loathes.
“In my opinion he grew more as a person than as a player,” Gilbert said.
Not to say that Vital has to change who he is. That’s a near impossibility. But maybe pass some of the positive aspects onto his teammates.
“How he can make it a positive is he can direct his emotion and his energy to try to uplift his teammates. Tyler (Polley) has to get more of that fire, more of that emotion. Instill that into Tyler. Instill that into Josh (Carlton) and the juniors, into the freshmen,” Hurley said. “You just have to use that to elevate the people around you.”
Elevation is central to Vital’s plans for his senior year in Storrs, and not just going up for a good dunk.
In the modern era of UConn basketball, Vital is on the verge of becoming an albatross. No UConn men’s basketball player has gone through four years with the program and not made at least one appearance in the NCAA Tournament since Cliff Robinson and Phil Gamble left in 1989.
Vital does not want to be the answer to that new version of the trivia question.
“I don’t plan on leaving without experiencing that,” he says.
When you’re a basketball player at UConn, it’s easy to be reminded of your place in the history of the school, or fueled to match another’s mark. Banners marking the program’s four national championships hang directly above the practice court in the Werth Center, the team’s on-campus home.
“You see the four national championships every time you go into our gym,” Vital said.
UConn, with Vital playing a key role each year, has suffered through three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the mid-1980s. But that fact shouldn’t necessarily weigh on the current Huskies, Hurley insists. Even Vital.
Hurley’s message to his players has largely been to let go of the past.
“This is almost like a fresh start. Can’t carry the last couple of years of disappointment into the way we view the program or root for the program moving forward,” Hurley said. “It’s not these freshmen who are really talented or these players that are young in the program. It’s not their burden to carry what’s happened with the program the last couple of years. It’s about turning the page and getting excited about these young players, getting excited about the season and the future of UConn, which will hopefully be filled with championships and that fifth banner.”