Last Friday was First Night (formerly midnight madness) on the UConn campus in Storrs, CT. It’s the first day college basketball teams can practice together and begins a month-long stretch of preparation leading to the home opener at Gampel Pavilion on November 11th against Wagner. The Huskies are without Daniel Hamilton (left early for NBA), Shonn Miller, and Sterling Gibbs from last year’s AAC Tournament Championship team, but are poised for great success once again. By my estimation, Kevin Ollie has the best team in the AAC going into this 2016-2017 season.
With Gibbs gone, sophomore Jalen Adams (Roxbury, MA native) will be the starting point guard for the Huskies. He is a smart player who looked more mature than a freshman last season (he also had his share of freshman mistakes). He made some big shots throughout the year (beyond half-court shot in the AAC tourney against Cincinnati to send the game into a 4th OT and eventually to a UConn W) and has shown leadership abilities. He has a much higher ceiling than Gibbs last season and is more of a true point guard who can distribute the ball. If there is one thing UConn is known for (besides championships), it’s producing great guards.
Alongside Adams in the backcourt is freshman Alterique Gilbert. Gilbert is a point guard, but will likely play some shooting guard in this year’s squad with time spent at the point when Adams gets a breather. Having two 6’+ ball handlers playing at the same time, both with quickness to spare, will prove difficult for opponents on both ends of the floor. Both can create their own shots in the lane and will create mismatches on smaller guards defensively. Gilbert was given an ESPN scouting grade of 89 (4-star rating) and was ranked as the 30th best prospect in the class of 2016.
UConn returns senior shot-blocker extraordinaire C Amida Brimah to lock down the paint and can now move senior Rodney Purvis to the small forward slot where his skill set fits the best. The biggest question mark is at the power forward spot. Kentan Facey was solid last year when he could stay out of foul trouble and is returning for his senior season. It will likely be his spot to lose, but with several young, athletic big men sitting on the bench, he will certainly be pushed. The main competition will likely be a pair of freshman Juwan Durham and Mamadou Diarra. They both likely see solid playing time, especially if Facey continues to hack everyone in sight.
Another major roster piece is VCU transfer big man Terry Larrier. At 6’8″ and 192 lbs, he is athletic and can stretch the floor, opening up the lane for Adams and Gilbert. As a sophomore transfer, Larrier has a little more experience than Durham and Diarra, which could prove to be useful in late game situations or if foul trouble becomes an issue. He played in 36 games for VCU his freshman year, sat out last year because of the transfer, but was able to practice with the team. He should have a knowledge advantage on the others and could be a critical piece down the stretch.
Overall, this UConn team appears to be as talented, if not more talented, than last year’s squad. There is a higher ceiling, but more uncertainty given the reliance on young players in the guard spots. If Adams can effectively run the offense and Gilbert is as good as advertised, a deep run in the NCAA tournament is not out of the question. I predict that UConn wins the AAC title this year and makes some noise in the tournament come March.