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UConn Basketball: Huskies Team Preview and Season Prediction 2021-22

R.J. Cole, Connecticut Huskies Basketball

R.J. Cole and the Huskies are ranked No. 21 in Athlon Sports' Top 25 for the 2021-22 college basketball season

UConn's return to the Big East after seven seasons in the American Athletic Conference brought the Huskies' first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016, although that appearance ended in a first-round loss to Maryland.

But the program is clearly back on the upswing. UConn has always been a better fit regionally in the Big East than the AAC, and the Huskies' move back has generated positive momentum after three sub-.500 seasons from 2017-19. They landed three top-100 freshmen for the upcoming season and have already landed multiple commitments for 2022.

The next step is to return UConn to the powerhouse status it enjoyed under Jim Calhoun. That could start this season, as the Huskies have enough pieces to win an NCAA Tournament game — if head coach Dan Hurley can find the right mix.

Related: College Basketball Top 25 for 2021-22

At a Glance

HEAD COACH: Dan Hurley

2020-21 RECORD (BIG EAST): 15-8 (11-6)

2020-21 Postseason: NCAA: Lost to Maryland 63-54 in the first round

KEY LOSS:
G James Bouknight (18.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg)

Frontcourt

Hurley didn't count on his frontcourt for much offense last season, but without James Bouknight carrying the Huskies at that end of the floor, they might need a breakout or two from a group filled with depth and versatility.

Tyrese Martin transferred from Rhode Island to UConn before last season, and he lived up to expectations during the first two-thirds of the season. There was a nine-game stretch in the middle of the season when he scored in double figures in every contest, averaging 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds. After that, though, Martin struggled on the offensive end, hitting double figures in just two of his final eight games. Martin will need to be more consistent this season and could be the team's go-to-guy.

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One candidate to step up into a much bigger role is sophomore Andre Jackson, a former top-50 recruit who missed seven games last season with a wrist injury. Jackson is an explosive athlete who showed flashes once he recovered from his injury.

Isaiah Whaley and Adama Sanogo return as starters down low, with Tyler Polley also coming back to add an inside-outside offensive threat. Both Whaley and Sanogo are terrific rebounders and shot-blockers, and Sanogo in particular could be poised for a breakthrough.

Akok Akok is a wild card. He started 24 games in 2019-20 but ruptured his Achilles and was limited to seven games last season. Freshman Samson Johnson will likely play a bigger role later in his career.

Backcourt

The backcourt isn't as deep as the frontcourt, but Hurley has options.

R.J. Cole was a high-scoring transfer from Howard, averaging more than 21 points in each of his two seasons in the MEAC, but he took on more of a secondary role during his first season in Storrs. He adapted well, cutting his turnovers by more than half while distributing effectively and shooting better than 38 percent from 3. His scoring numbers should go up without Bouknight.

Junior guard Jalen Gaffney will likely take Bouknight's spot in the lineup, although he's not nearly the same threat offensively. Gaffney is a good defender who shot 36.2 percent from 3 last season and also had two double-digit scoring outings in the final four games of the campaign.

Hurley brings in two freshmen, and he'll need at least one to make an immediate impact. Rahsool Diggins is an effective creator, while Jordan Hawkins, with his athleticism and smooth offensive ability, might be better suited to pick up some of Bouknight's vacated shots.

Final Analysis

Hurley's teams are always stout defensively, and with Whaley and Sanogo anchoring the interior, that shouldn't change. But the Huskies are going to need to figure out how to score consistently without relying so heavily on second-chance opportunities; UConn ranked fourth nationally last season in offensive rebounding percentage.

Bouknight carried the load last season, but in the eight games he missed, UConn took a clear step back at that end of the floor. Whether it's one of the freshmen stepping up, Martin finding consistency or Jackson breaking out, the Huskies need a scorer. If that happens, UConn has a great shot to finish second in the Big East.

Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Round of 32
Big East Prediction: 2