UConn basketball

Who Will UConn Basketball Rely On in Bouknight’s Absence?

There’s no denying James Bouknight’s talent. He is on his way to becoming the next UConn basketball start to hear his name called on NBA Draft night. That might be as early as this June. 

There’s also no denying that how the Huskies fare over the next three weeks will determine if Bouknight returns to a team that is still worthy of an NCAA Tournament berth. Ranked 23rd in the latest Top 25 AP Poll, UConn is firmly in the bracket if the season ended today.

However, Bouknight is not expected to return soon. It will be early-February before Coach Dan Hurley gets his star guard back. Bouknight last played in a 65-54 win over Marquette on January 5, 2021. He had bone spurs removed from his left elbow after being injured in the first half. Bouknight managed to finish the game but failed to score after intermission. He was UConn’s and the Big East’s leading scorer, averaging 20.3 points per game when he got hurt. 

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Since his injury, the Huskies have gone 2-1. The latest result was a 74-70 loss to St. John’s at home on Martin Luther King Day. They clearly missed the talented sophomore, who UConn hopes will become their latest first-round NBA Draft pick since Shabazz Napier in 2014. 

How can UConn Basketball survive and ensure that Bouknight returns to meaningful games and an opportunity to play in March Madness for the first time since 2016 when UConn advanced to the second round before falling to Kansas 73-61?

They need RJ Cole, Tyrese Martin, and Tyler Polley to shine. More performances like they got from freshman big-man Adame Sanogo against St. John’s will also help.

Cole, Martin, and Polley have all seen their minutes and scoring increase since Bouknight left the lineup three games ago. 

Martin is seeing almost eight more minutes a game while seeing his scoring average increase from 11.6 points to 15.7 points.

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Cole averaged 29.8 minutes and 9.6 points in the games Bouknight played. Since the injury, Cole has averaged 12.3 points in 32.3 minutes per game. He tallied a season-high 18 points, including four three-pointers, in the loss to St. John’s.

Polley may be the most important factor. He has seen his minutes increase from just under 17 a contest to 29 per game. He scored 42 points in the first five games of the season. Since Bouknight left the lineup, he has scored 38 points in their three games (12.7 average).

While Cole, Martin, and Polley look to make up the scoring from the perimeter, the play of Sanogo is crucial as well. The 6-9 freshman forward from Mali tallied a season-high in points (12), minutes (17), field goals (6), and attempts (11) in the loss to St. John’s. Several of his hoops came on nifty, low-post moves. If he can progress on the blocks, that will open the floor for the trio of Cole, Martin, and Polley to make shots from the perimeter.

Ironically, UConn is making the same exact amount of three-pointers (7.3) in the games played with and without Bouknight (44 in the six games with Bouknight, 22 in the three games without). Sanogo’s continued development will allow that conversion rate to continue or even get better.

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Hurley hopes it does and also leads to some wins as UConn Basketball starts a brutal four-game, eight-day stretch when they travel to play Creighton on Saturday. The stretch also includes a make-up game against Villanova. Both the Wildcats and Blue Jays have spent the majority of the season in the Top-10. The other games before January 31 also include a home date with Butler and a return matchup with St. John’s on the road.

UConn Basketball will need to navigate that stretch on the backs of Martin, Polley, Cole, and Sanogo and hope to get Bouknight back for a February 6 date against Seton Hall or four days later against Providence, a pair of teams with similar NCAA Tournament hopes, in order to enter March as a viable NCAA Tournament contender.

By skirck2

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