Kevin Ollie’s UConn Huskies suffered two early season losses to Wagner and Northeastern and were ravaged by injuries on their way to an under .500 finish (16-17) in 2016-17. They finished the year by losing three straight games to open AAC play and fell in the conference tournament semifinal at the XL Center to Cincinnati by 10 points.
Jalen Adams (14.4 PPG) and Rodney Purvis (13.8 PPG) were the only two players — who didn’t suffer a season ending injury — to average double figures in points.
After missing the NCAA Tournament twice in the last three years, the Huskies are looking to return to the big stage in 2017-18 with a talented and much healthier roster.
Record: 16-17 overall, 9-9 in AAC
Key Returnees: Jalen Adams, Christian Vital, Terry Larrier, Alterique Gilbert
Newcomers: Antwoine Anderson (Fordham graduate transfer), David Onuorah (Cornell graduate transfer) Tyler Polley (four-star SF), Josh Carlton (four-star C), Sidney Wilson (four-star F) Isaiah Whaley (three-star PF), Eric Cobb (PF), Kwintin Willams (SF)
Departures: Rodney Purvis, Kentan Facey, Vance Jackson, Amida Brimah, Steven Enoch, Juwan Durham
1. Can Larrier and Gilbert provide a spark coming off injuries?
How former VCU transfer Terry Larrier (torn ACL) and former four-star recruit Alterique Gilbert (dislocated shoulder) respond to season-ending injuries could define the Huskies’ season in 2017-18.
Larrier played in four games last year and averaged 13.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. It’s not a large sample size, but even with the Rams as a freshman, Larrier averaged a solid 6.6 points and 3.0 rebounds, looking like a potential star in the making in the Atlantic 10.
The 6’8″ forward from the Bronx has terrific athleticism and the ability to make plays in transition. He’s not a consistent jump shooter and tends to struggle from the free throw line, but his physical attributes (length in particular) and explosiveness stand out.
Meanwhile, Gilbert will form a two-headed backcourt with the junior, Adams. Gilbert averaged 10.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in three games last season, including an excellent 50 percent from the field, before his sophomore year ended due to a shoulder injury.
Gilbert has great strength, quickness and speed, giving the Huskies yet another threat in transition. Like Larrier, Gilbert doesn’t have a great outside jump shot to keep the defense honest, however, he is a tough, hard-nosed guard that can make plays off the dribble.
The problem with Larrier and Gilbert is not their talent or skills, it’s the fact that they lack experience in big games. Larrier played 19 minutes in the NCAA Tournament as a freshman, but has not played a single game at the AAC level. Meanwhile, Gilbert’s three outings in 2016-17 came against Wagner, Northeastern and Loyola Marymount.
UConn’s overall success could be determined by how these two players adjust in their first game action in nearly a year. Remember, UConn’s non-conference schedule is loaded with matchups against Oregon, Syracuse, Arizona and Auburn, so Ollie better hope they get up to speed rather quickly.
2. Is Adams ready to carry the team?
Adams averaged career highs in points (14.4), assists (6.1), rebounds (4.3), field goal percentage (43) and three-point percentage (35) in 2016-17.
On the flip side, Adams also struggled to stay healthy and was wildly inconsistent, including 10 games in which he finished with single digits in points. He had a dominant three-game stretch early in the season in Maui, where he scored 86 points in showdowns against Oklahoma State, Chaminade and Oregon.
During that same stretch though, he turned the ball over 10 times against the Cowboys and only led his team to a single victory (over Chaminade — a DII school). Late in the AAC season, Adams suffered through some brutal, inefficient games, including a 5-of-13 shooting performance against Temple, a 5-of-14 outing versus Houston and a 1-of-6 showing against SMU.
If UConn is going to return to the Big Dance, and potentially make a run, they need Adams to play his best basketball, develop as a leader and be much more consistent on a game-by-game basis, especially in conference play.
3. Is Ollie the right man for the job?
After the 2014 National Championship, Ollie was one of the hottest coaching candidates in basketball as NBA teams were trying to poach the former Oklahoma City Thunder assistant from Connecticut. Instead of jumping to the professional landscape, Ollie doubled down with a contract that will keep the 44-year-old in CT through the 2021 season.
But since then, the Huskies have made one NCAA Tournament appearance, losing in the first round of the NIT and finishing under .500 in the other two campaigns.
Yes, it’s true that UConn battled injury issues up-and-down their roster last season, but they were also at full strength in games against Wagner and Northeastern — two embarrassing home losses to open the 2016-17 season. They just barely escaped with a win over Loyola Marymount in the third game, angering Huskie fans for the remainder of the year.
Nearly every big game the Huskies played in 2016, they were beaten. They fell to Ohio State on the road, lost to Auburn in overtime at home, failed to earn a win over former Big East rival Georgetown and were swept by Cincinnati, SMU and Houston.
UConn fans have strong expectations for their program, as Jim Calhoun helped the Huskies become the class of college basketball with National Titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011.
Ollie deserves more time at UConn with a National Title and a 174-113 overall record on his resume, however, the patience of Huskie fans are wearing thin and another missed NCAA Tournament is going to create a major firestorm in Storrs.
The AAC needs UConn to succeed to remain relevant nationally and college basketball needs the Huskies to be a potent threat again to create more drama in March.