HARTFORD, Conn. – A season that started with great expectations and was thrown off-target along the way due to injuries ended for UConn on Saturday night at the XL Center in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
The Huskies’ 81-71 loss to second-seeded Cincinnati brought an end to the careers of Rodney Purvis, Amida Brimah, and Kentan Facey.
However, despite all the struggles, the Huskies, who suffered their first losing campaign in 30 years by finishing at 16-17, went through during the season it should make them an even better team next season.
Among the setbacks were losing talented scorer Terry Larrier just four games into the season along with highly-touted freshman Alterique Gilbert. The Huskies also had a host of injuries to other players along the way, with Purvis, Brimah, and Facey being the only players to play in every game.
“I’m proud of them,” head coach Kevin Ollie said, after the season-ending loss. “I know they got better, you know, throughout the year. They could have made every excuse in the book, but they never did.
“They came to practice. I mean, sometimes we had practice with four guys, and everybody knows my practices, we practice full. We have four guys trying to play with walk-ons and everything. So, I just have pride in those guys.
“I love them.”
With a breakout sophomore season, there’s much to love about point guard Jalen Adams’ game going forward. Adams earned first-team all-conference honors as he developed into the Huskies’ floor general during the season, and then tried to carry them through the postseason despite having just one healthy ankle.
“He’s like Barry Sanders with a basketball out there,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “His change in direction and explosiveness is just tremendous.”
Adams scored 20 points in the loss to the Bearcats despite being in first-half foul trouble and averaged 17 points in three tournament games.
“I think the injuries were very unfortunate, but I think as a team we learned a lot,” said Adams, who averaged a team-high 14.4 ppg and 6.7 apg. “Going into next year we know even if we’re short-handed we can compete with anyone.
“We just learned the overall lesson to never give up and keep fighting. I think that’s the overall lesson and that should carry on forever.”
One huge accomplishment this season was the growth of freshmen Christian Vital (9.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.2 apg) and Vance Jackson (8.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg).
“To me, I’m just ready, you know,” Vital said. “Whatever minutes were thrown to me, obviously, everyone’s role increased through the injuries that we got.
“I’m just going to go into next year just with the same confidence that I had this year and just ready to compete with my guys.”
The first-year players were supposed to be part of the “Top Five” 2016 class that also included point guard Alterique Gilbert, Mamadou Diarra and Juwan Durham.
Diarra sat out the season with chronic knee problems while Gilbert appeared in only four games before suffering his season-ending shoulder injury. Durham was eased into the lineup after missing his last two seasons of high school with knee injuries, and showed flashes of how talented he could be with his skills.
With Diarra and Gilbert back next season along with Larrier, plus the addition of three freshmen and JUCO forward Eric Cobb the Huskies will be stocked.
Coming in, forward Tyler Polley is ranked 83rd in the Class of 2017. Brewster Academy point guard Makai Ashton-Langford (40th), is a playmaker who will compete with Adams and Gilbert at the point. And 6-10 center Josh Carlton, from DeMatha (Md.) Catholic, will give the Huskies some depth upfront.
“Every season is different,” Ollie said. “The guys got to come back, they’ve got to work, they’ve got to be coachable.
“Hopefully, they got their lessons from me, and hopefully, they get their lessons from all the resources around out great program.”