STORRS - For a three-game stretch in early January, there was no better basketball player in the Big East Conference than Tyler Polley. There weren’t many better in the entire nation.
When opponents saw No. 12 coming down the court, it was a safe bet that he was going to make a 3.
But for the 15 games that followed, culminating in the season’s end, the production of the UConn men’s basketball team’s sharpshooter was literally hit and miss.
The Huskies, not to mention Polley himself, are interested in seeing the former more often in what will be the Miramar, Florida native’s fifth season in the program.
Polley’s big fortnight began when he came off the bench to lead UConn to road wins at Marquette and Butler, scoring a combined 42 points and making five 3-pointers in each.
“I just think I was playing with confidence, really,” Polley said Wednesday afternoon outside the Werth Center on the UConn campus. “I felt with Bouk (James Bouknight) being out, someone had to step up and I just stepped up. I tried to play really aggressive during that time, taking shots, taking risks out there.”
The 6-foot-9 Polley scored another 12 points against DePaul and it looked like the Huskies had a major scoring threat developing for the stretch run. But Polley reached double figures in scoring only two more times over the final 15 games of the season.
Polley had a solid season in 2020-21, just not an outstanding one. He averaged 7.5 points and was won the Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, though for the season he shot a ho-hum 35.5 percent from 3-point range.
Polley believes he’s capable of better, as do his teammates and coaches.
“He’s one of the best, no, he’s the best shooter in the country,” teammate R.J. Cole said Wednesday. “When he has it, he’s going to knock it down, especially when he’s right mentally.
“Last year was tough. Everybody wasn’t right mentally. That was probably holding us down the most,” Cole added.
Despite his effusive praise, Cole made more 3-pointers than Polley last season to lead the Huskies. Cole hit 39 to Polley’s 38, though Cole did so with about 260 more minutes of game action.
Still, the point guard knows that a hot-shooting Polley is going to almost be a requirement for the Huskies if they are to improve in the coming season.
“It all comes down to confidence. Confidence from yourself, confidence that the coaches give you, confidence that your teammates give you,” Cole said.
UConn went 15-8 last season, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years. But one of the team’s deficiencies - consistent shooting - was in part the reason for their quick flame out in the tournament.
The Huskies lost to Maryland 63-54 in the opening round of the NCAAs, hitting a mere 32.3 percent of their shots from the floor.
After the game, it appeared for a moment as if the Huskies were losing not only their best player - the fact that Bouknight was bound for the NBA at season’s end was not a secret - but their best shooter, too, in Polley.
But Polley and teammate Isaiah Whaley soon after announced they had decided to take advantage of the extra season of eligibility the NCAA granted all athletes because of COVID and would return to the Huskies for a fifth season of play.
“It was a pretty easy decision, even though it took a minute to make,” Polley said. “I thought about the pro process but just being real, I wasn’t ready. So being back here, coming back, having another year here, getting me more ready for the next level, I think that was the best decision.”
In addition to being honest with himself about his pro prospects, Polley also admitted that although he went through Senior Night and participated in what many thought was his final season in Storrs, it wasn’t the kind of goodbye he had in mind.
“Having my last year with no fans, that didn’t feel right,” Polley said. “The fans show us mad love. I’ve been here for five years now, so going out with fans (this season), playing at a packed Gampel, at a packed XL, that’s all you want.”
And transferring to another school to play that fifth season was never an option, Polley points out.
“It’s UConn. I couldn’t imagine going somewhere else,” Polley said.
The NBA might still be in Polley’s future, though he knows he’ll have to get stronger and make his jump shot more consistent.
As for his final season in college, he has plans to play like he did against Marquette, Butler, and DePaul for a full season.
“For me it’s just being aggressive, playing with more risks,” Polley said. “That doesn’t equate to shots. It’s being more aggressive on the defensive end, rebounding. I think I need to play with that mindset all the time.”
He and his teammates recently began taking classes as part of UConn’s second summer session, and are also practicing regularly to prepare for the upcoming season.
It’s an offseason that Polley is relishing. Because of COVID and because of the ACL tear he was recovering from, the 2020 offseason was not an easy one for Polley.
“Last summer he had to focus on his health. This summer he can focus on his game and his body,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said recently.
This week, Polley was smiling ear-to-ear as he discussed the hard-nosed practices he was in the thick of at Gampel Pavilion and the Werth Center in recent weeks.
“It feels good to be back. Last year was super difficult with COVID and all that. It was super weird. We couldn’t even really compete with each other,” Polley said.
Polley says he’s competing hard now, with designs on being the best player he can: something like the man who scorched the nets in early January who was wearing a No. 12 UConn jersey.