There are milestones in the development of a basketball program, Dan Hurley believes, that are necessary in order to reach the pinnacle.
Fans of the UConn men’s basketball program, which has made it to that peak four times, would love to see their Huskies make it back. At a minimum, however, they were eager to move beyond painful blowouts and consecutive losing seasons.
Hurley, in his second season at the helm, can now check that off his list.
Moreover, the coach sees the recently completed 2019-20 season as a significant stepping stone in the program’s return to prominence.
“This will be the year we look back when it turned,” Hurley said.
Though significant markers like postseason berths and conference tournament titles will have to wait - or remain theoretical, at least, for the time being because of the unprecedented, abrupt end to the season - the Huskies have clearly progressed.
UConn isn’t exactly ahead of schedule, as 19 wins isn’t exactly a number the school will trumpet, but there are signs that Hurley is establishing the kind of culture he wants, and perhaps the kind that builds champions.
“We’re further ahead in terms of building that character of the program,” Hurley said.
His departing players, which include Christian Vital and, very likely, Alterique Gilbert, have helped build that character, according to Hurley.
“They’re the foundation of what’s going to happen next for us,” Hurley said. “They’ve helped us instill a standard.”
Let’s look back at the Huskies’ season as a whole:
An odd loss to St. Joseph’s in game two aside, the Huskies had a solid pre-conference performance. They hit New Year’s Eve with a big win over No. 15 Florida, a fantastic effort in a loss to No. 18 Xavier, and many other solid efforts, but hit the skids as American Athletic Conference play began.
UConn lost six of its first seven games to start the calendar year.
Hurley blamed the league schedule-maker, which sent the Huskies to Cincinnati and to South Florida to start conference play, for part of the downturn.
The finish. UConn was just hitting its stride when the season abruptly ended.
The Huskies won their final five games and nine of their last 12. They weren’t on the good side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, but there was growing belief among the players and coaches that they were headed precisely there, and perhaps into the field of 68.
The world will never know, of course, how far the Huskies would have gone
Christian Vital. The senior guard became a dominant force just when the Huskies needed him to.
He earned first-team All-American Conference honors and easily could have been given the league’s player of the year award, though that honor went to Memphis’ Precious Achiuwa.
“He’s been one of the best players in the conference the last six weeks,” Hurley said. “The way he’s led and the way he’s played, he’s certainly got what he deserved.”
Vital finished his UConn career with 1,735 points, the 10th-most in school history. He also had 215 steals (third in UConn history) and 265 3-pointers (second).
He may have missed the start of the regular season but freshman guard James Bouknight showed quickly after making his debut that he would be a force to be reckoned with.
Bouknight finished with 364 points this season. Only 14 other freshmen in UConn history scored as many, and many of their names are legendary at the school: Caron Butler, Ray Allen, Nadav Henefeld, Khalid El-Amin, Rudy Gay, Ben Gordon, Daniel Hamilton, Jerome Dyson, Richard Hamilton, Earl Kelley, Jeremy Lamb, Mike McKay, Doron Sheffer, and Corny Thompson.
“James has been one of the best freshmen guards in the country,” Hurley said. “Especially at the offensive end, he’s been sensational.”
It’s not very often a team makes progress, and in some ways improves, after losing two frontcourt starters in the span of five weeks midway through the season.
But somehow the Huskies persevered despite losing Tyler Polley to a knee injury in mid-January and Akok Akok to a torn Achilles in mid-February.
“Sports is brutal sometimes,” Hurley said at the time. “Life is brutal sometimes.”
Despite the losses, UConn continued to improve. In fact, the only game it lost after Akok went down was a double-overtime setback on the road at Temple.
An outstanding recruiting class, coupled with two more players who have been sitting for the entire season, could make the Huskies instant contenders when they return to the Big East Conference.
Wing Andre Jackson from Albany and center Javonte Brown-Ferguson from the Toronto area, both top-50 players, have signed Letters of Intent to play at UConn.
Point guard R.J. Cole, a high-scoring transfer from Howard, and big man Richie Springs, who missed the season for academic reasons, will also be starting their UConn careers in the fall.
And the Huskies likely aren’t done on the recruiting trail. With Akok unlikely to be ready for the start of the season, and perhaps not for any part of it, UConn could add another forward as well as another guard. The coaching staff, assuming the recruiting world returns to relatively normalcy along with the rest of the sports world, is likely to investigate the transfer portal for those players.