Circumstances have put celebrated 2019 UConn men's basketball recruiting class behind schedule

Published on Thursday, 7 November 2019 20:49
Written by Neill Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

The vaunted 2019 recruiting class of the UConn men’s basketball team was quite a feather in second-year coach Dan Hurley’s cap.

It was ranked in the 18th-best in the nation by 247 sports, lauded by many long-time observers as perhaps the group that takes the Huskies back to the level their fans had become accustomed to.

It still might do that. But of the five newcomers who joined the program - Akok Akok, R.J. Cole, James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney and Richie Springs - only one took the court in the team’s first scrimmage of the preseason.

One injured (Gaffney), one facing a quasi-suspension (Bouknight), one academically ineligible (Springs), and one forced to the sidelines by NCAA transfer rules (Cole).

Many of the absences were excused or expected, but not all.

The class shrank quite rapidly as the 2019-20 regular season approached for a variety of reasons, though the hopes for its success haven’t been diminished.

For starters, the Huskies knew all along that guard R.J. Cole would have to sit out the entire season after transferring from Howard. The high-scoring point guard will burst onto the Big East scene in the 2020-21 season, but he’ll have to watch the Huskies through their final spin around the American Athletic Conference.

“Really, really high level offensive player,” Hurley said of Cole. “High level in terms of just his ability to pass the ball on time, his feel for pick and roll. Offensively, he’s kind of got everything you want in a point guard.”

Bouknight’s status is of course the most confounding and upsetting to UConn fans. The New York native was arrested by UConn police in September after he allegedly drove, and crashed, a borrowed car, all without the benefit of a driver’s license.

He has been allowed to practice but Bouknight will be held out of game action for a period that Hurley has yet to reveal.

As for Bouknight’s basketball ability, Hurley says it’s off the charts.

“He oozes talent. He’s almost too talented for his own good because he plays in spurts. Because he’s so talented, he can just play in spurts and still just be really, really impressive,” Hurley said.

Gaffney sprained his ankle very early in the team’s workouts and hasn’t been 100 percent yet. He did play in the team’s exhibition victory over St. Michael’s but still won’t be where the coaches had hoped he’d be at this point.

“We thought we would be further along with the two freshman guards but because of injury and because of off-the-court, quite honestly going into the season we’re not getting as much out of this group as we hoped,” Hurley said.

Still, like Bouknight, Hurley admits he’s eager to see Gaffney at his peak in a UConn uniform.

“He can score, he can shoot it. He’s super athletic. Very, very smart, cerebral guy,” Hurley said of Gaffney. “I think he’s going to have a huge impact as well.”

Springs, who played at the MacDuffie School in Granby, Massachusetts with Bouknight, was a late scratch from the UConn roster because he wasn’t abler to get through the NCAA’s Clearinghouse. He had reclassified to attend college a year early but apparently couldn’t get his academics in shape fast enough and was deemed a partial qualifier by the NCAA.

Springs will be able to practice with the Huskies this year but won’t play in any games. When he does, however, the coaches believe the lanky forward will make an impact.

“I think Richie is going to be the unsung gem of this class in a couple years when it’s all said and done,” Hurley said.

The only man to actually participate fully so far among the Husky newcomers is Akok. The 6-foot-10 Sudanese forward who grew up in New Hampshire arrived at UConn last spring ahead of schedule. Although he has yet to play in a regular season game, he has a leg up on his fellow first-year Huskies.

“He kind of looks the part of what everyone wants in today’s game,” Hurley said. “A tall guy with length and athletic ability that you could put on multiple people defensively, and that can space the floor for you.”

Akok, a likely starter for the Huskies right away, is already “a presence on the defensive end” according to Hurley and a “pretty good” perimeter shooter.

They may have different backgrounds but Hurley seems to see a bit of himself in Akok.

“The kid, he loves basketball. He’s passionate about his career,” Hurley said. “He desperately wants to win and deliver UConn back to the level that it belongs at.”

The UConn newcomers as a whole, despite not being quite together yet, has put a little spring in Hurley’s step nonetheless. The quintet has already changed the way UConn practices and will change the way the team plays.

“We’re a deeper, younger team. It’s always fun going to practice. But the practices are just better this year because there’s a better understanding of what’s going to be expected, how they need to show up, the attention to detail, the energy level, the competitive level that we want from them. It’s all there,” Hurley said.

The preseason practices the Huskies went through may have been a little more fun for Hurley, but they’ve involved quite a bit of teaching, too, especially for the new group.

“The early part of teaching them about spacing and pace on offense and execution,” Hurley said. “Plus what it means to be a great teammate, what it means to be about winning.”

The incumbent players, though talented as well, haven’t won much at UConn. With this influx of fresh faces, Hurley is hopeful he’s made the perfect mix to get the Huskies back to the NCAA Tournament - and perhaps beyond.

Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Thursday, 7 November 2019 20:49. Updated: Thursday, 7 November 2019 20:51.