AAC championship trophy photo serves as motivation for UConn men

Storrs — A constant companion follows the UConn basketball team around.

A photo of the American Athletic Conference championship trophy shows up at practice, team meals and weight room as well as other locations.

"Anywhere you can think of," senior Christian Vital said. "Bathroom, everywhere."

Team managers are responsible for making sure the trophy photo is on the move with the players. It was set up courtside inside the Werth Center on Saturday during UConn's first official practice of the 2019-20 season.

It serves as a source of motivation and a reminder of the team's ultimate goal.

"You don't really need any motivation when you decide to come to UConn," Vital said, "but when you see it in front of your face every day, every where we go, and then coming in here and seeing those four (national championship) banners, it's just definitely a reminder of what our expectations are, what we want to hold ourselves to, and where we want to be at at the end of the year."

Since his first press conference in March 2018, coach Dan Hurley has preached about restoring the program back to an elite level and chasing championships again.

The Huskies last won a national title in 2014. They've never captured or really even contended for an ACC regular season title. They won their only conference tournament crown in 2016.

Hurley, who's in his second year, is stressing to possess a championship mentality in everything they do.

With the addition of his first recruiting class, Hurley's confident that this season will be better than last when they posted a 16-17 record and resided in the bottom third of the AAC standings at 6-12.

It's not the first time that Hurley has kept a picture of a championship trophy around his team.

"We did that at Rhode Island just as a reminder what the expectations should be for us, just what you should be constantly in pursuit of," said Hurley who led the Rams to the Atlantic 10 regular season title in 2017-18. "You shouldn't be constantly in pursuit of your own individual accolades and mindset. You've got to be chasing a championship.

"If we get those three older players (Vital, Alterique Gilbert, Josh Carlton) playing at an all-conference level, then we get a jump from those other guys and then the freshmen are good, then you've got to chase that this year. There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to."

The players are embracing Hurley's message.

They're focused on going out on top in their final season in the AAC before rejoining the Big East in 2020-21.

"The last couple of years we got beat up a little bit," redshirt sophomore Sidney Wilson said. "So we definitely want to make a statement before we leave the conference and go to the Big East next season. Our eyes are on the prize. We're trying to do our best in the American right now."

Freshman James Bouknight knew about the program's championship history before arriving in Storrs. He hopes to be part of the revival.

"Everyone knows that we've been down a few years," Bouknight said. "It's UConn, so we have an expectation that needs to be met."

And what does the picture of the AAC trophy mean to him?

"It's basically a sign that when we look at that make sure we're doing the right things to reach that goal, each and every one of us," Bouknight said.

Bouknight is one of five newcomers on the roster, along with fellow guard Jalen Gaffney, forwards Akok Akok and Richie Springs, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Saturday, and transfer R.J. Cole, who'll sit out this season as a redshirt.

Still a bit hoarse from his surgery earlier this month, Hurley's voice didn't carry throughout the practice as it normally does. But he was still his usual demanding self.

When the Huskies failed to properly execute a drill, he had them line up and run a series of cross-court sprints.

The first official practice always is a special day for Hurley.

"It's like your first Little League game," Hurley said. "You've got butterflies a little bit the night before because you're excited to get started and have another season. It's a lot of fun."

So much fun that Hurley ran a second workout later Saturday at the XL Center in Hartford.

"Last year there were so many scheduling issues that we just didn't have opportunities to get in there enough, so we got way out ahead of it this year," Hurley said. "It wll allow us to perform better. We'll get there a bunch."

g.keefe@theday.com


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