HARTFORD - Things haven’t changed as much for the UConn men’s basketball team as some of its fans would like to think. The Huskies are better than they have been the last two seasons, but just not good enough.
That was evident after a string of plays Saturday afternoon. Christian Vital’s tip dunk had pulled the Huskies within three points of American Athletic Conference preseason favorite Central Florida, and the junior guard’s 3-pointer a moment later had tied the game with just over 14 minutes to play in the game.
The first play had brought the 10,541 fans at the XL Center to their feet and the latter had them nearly losing their minds.
Surely this was the momentum swing UConn needed to seize control of the game and ride on to victory, no?
Well, no. UConn broke down quickly after, ending in a 65-53 loss Saturday afternoon at the XL Center, the Knights’ first-ever win on one of the Huskies’ home courts.
It was the third straight loss for the suddenly reeling Huskies (9-6), who are off to an 0-2 start in league play for the third straight season.
Perhaps we never should have expected a positive result.
“There’s a reason why I’m here,” first-year UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “I’m here to fix these issues.”
A bushel of turnovers, a handful of iffy defensive possessions followed Vital’s heroics and the Huskies were in a deep hole again. The rest of the game was just window dressing.
“It’s part of why UConn has struggled. That toughness, that mentality, that killer mindset, that will to win that has driven this program to the heights it’s been at, it’s been absent,” Hurley said. “And you don’t get that back overnight.”
You also don’t get that back over 15 games, either, it seems.
UConn, once among the elite nationally, simply isn’t even among the elite in the American Conference these days. UCF, Cincinnati, Houston and likely others are still head and shoulders ahead of the Huskies.
“There’s obviously a gap between us and the better teams we play,” Hurley admitted. “We just have to keep closing that gap with our efforts this year and our efforts to building this thing up over time.”
Coming off a pair of embarrassing losses - the Huskies gave up 51 points in the second half of their loss to Villanova Dec. 22 then doubled down with an even worse effort Wednesday in Tampa by allowing another 51 points in the second half, this time to USF - UConn didn’t seem capable of contending with anyone.
But Hurley says he witnessed a much-improved effort from his team Saturday, despite the setback.
“From an effort standpoint I’m not sure we could have played much harder,” Hurley said. “The reality of it is offensively and defensively as a team we’re still pretty far away from where we need to be here.”
After the USF game, it seemed as if the hurdle was nearly impossible for the Huskies to clear.
“We had a hard time looking at each other, looking each other in the eyes the last couple days because of the disappointment in each other,” Hurley said. “At least in that locker room (Saturday) we could look at each other and not be ashamed of how we represented the university and the program.
Playing a bit short-handed Saturday due to center Kassoum Yakwe’s recent season-ending foot injury and forward Kwintin Williams’ ongoing suspension, the Huskies managed to limit 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall’s offense but the Senegalese skyscraper still dominated the game at the other end of the court for UCF.
The Huskies even managed to keep Fall and the Knights off the offensive glass entirely, but there were plenty of other issues that plagued the home team.
“We’re just not to the point as a program where we do a lot of things…right,” Hurley said. “Because it takes time to build habits of doing things the right way. There’s no magic dust that you sprinkle on a team and all of a sudden they’re disciplined in all aspects of the game.”
Some fans have suggested this week that the Huskies’ record this season would be exactly the same had former coach Kevin Ollie not been fired in the offseason.
That’s not a ridiculous statement. It very well could.
But strides have clearly been made that aren’t noted in the win-loss record, and it’s also fair to say that the margin of defeats would likely be greater and the margins of victory smaller had Ollie remained in place.
And yet, many had expected Hurley’s arrival to translate into near immediate success.
Perhaps we should not have expected such results right away.
Hurley even admitted Friday that UConn was caught somewhere between a complete rebuild - “blowing it up and going with young players,” is how he phrased it - and trying to contend for something this season.
The Huskies have taken some steps back toward the elite. They just can’t run with the big boys just yet.
“This is why I was hired. There’s not just one thing that needs to be fixed,” Hurley said.