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Dan Hurley on end to season, roster moves

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. (Ian Bethune)

The coronavirus has the world heading into unchartered territory, but Dan Hurley remains focused on restoring UConn's men basketball program to glory.

“We are a program that’s trending up,” he said during a conference call with the media.

Despite his confidence, an initial challenge to ensuring that trend continues has already presented itself in redshirt junior guard Alterique Gilbert's decision to enter the NCAA transfer portal. Although his presence will be missed, the silver lining to his departure is that the Huskies will gain an additional roster spot for next season with an opportunity to add 1-2 players over the coming months.

Formulating a plan to fill these roster spots and achieve success in the Big East has helped UConn's head coach stay busy during this troubling time.

“I hope everyone here is safe and healthy and taking care of themselves,” said Hurley at the onset of the call. “Obviously, a scary time for all of us.”

After three straight losing seasons, the Huskies righted the ship in Hurley’s second season with a 19-12 record and fifth-place finish (10-8) in the American Athletic Conference. UConn headed into the conference tournament on a five-game winning streak and looked to have locked up at least a trip to the NIT with their recent play.

It was at this time that the sports world took a backseat to the real world when an NBA player tested positive for COVID-19.

Hurley shared his assessment of this past season by saying, “We were able to go 10-8 in the league after having three straight losing seasons...We obviously had a winning season overall and had a great chance to get 20-plus wins if it had continued."

He went on to say, “At the end of the day we were NIT-bound, which was an important step forward, with the possibility if we could have gotten to Sunday in the conference tournament that might have been enough to get us to Dayton (for the opening round of the NCAA Tournament) … we were a couple games away from being an NCAA team (this year).”

Going into the off-season, the Huskies were prepared to lose a big piece from this season in first-team All-AAC guard Christian Vital. Similarly, Gilbert’s departure comes as no surprise as he participated in senior night festivities late in the season.

Whether more players might leave - especially if the NCAA waives its transfer rule - remains to be seen.

While not naming specific players, Hurley said, "stay tuned on any movement."

The nucleus for next season appears strong, with James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney returning along with veterans Josh Carlton, Isaiah Whaley, and Tyler Polley, who is coming back from a torn ACL.

Hurley said the following in regards to Polley's recovery, “Tyler should be ready to go for the opener. He’s progressed very well and I think he’s a guy who we can count on, I think, to be ready for the season and be ready to help us.”

Unlike Polley, freshman Akok Akok won't be available to start the season after suffering a ruptured Achilles' tendon, but the Huskies are holding onto hope that he will be in the mix at some point during the '20-21 campaign.

“(The team doctor) is thrilled with the way he looks right now,” Hurley said. “I can’t give you a timeline on Akok because of the type of injury, but I know he has his eyes set on his first game back being a Big East game. It’s driving him and pushing him in his rehab, but we won’t let either guy on the court until they are 100 percent.”

In addition to the core group and Akok, four newcomers are expected to contribute this coming season. Two of these players, forward Richie Springs and Howard transfer R.J. Cole, have already started practicing with the team and incoming freshmen Andre Jackson and Javonte Brown-Ferguson also figure to make an impact.

Hurley called the foursome a “big infusion of talent" and added that the Huskies will have the recruiting “flexibility to look for qualities that we are missing"

The actual recruitment of players, though, will be a bit more difficult with the country on lockdown to prevent the pandemic's spread.

“It puts a premium on being really organized and having a really great all-around coaching staff,” Hurley said. “We’re able to make calls, we’re just going to have to be a little bit creative in the way we’re going to be able to present information to potential recruits, without the ability to have them on campus and without the ability to meet with them in the foreseeable future. There’s no blueprint for this.”

Perhaps not, but the Huskies remain on course under Hurley’s rebuilding plan after a strong closing season in the AAC.

“It was about building an identity and trying to take an important step forward with the program,” Hurley said. “I feel like we were able to do that.

He reiterated this sentiment by saying, “The identity we developed was one of having a together team, being a tough team, a team that displayed toughness on a nightly basis and on the practice court. We took an important step forward.”