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Depth has paid dividends of late for UConn men

Storrs — UConn has improved its odds of winning on a regular basis this season.

The reason is simple.

A deep, talented rotation allows coach Dan Hurley to play his preferred attack style of play and keep players fresh. That isn't a luxury he had last season.

"The good thing about having a nine or 10 man rotation, it sounds really simple, but it gives you a better chance to win because you have more chances of somebody playing well," Hurley said after Tuesday's practice.

"If you have a seven-man rotation and four or five guys are having a bad night, there's less people that have a chance to play well for us. So, at its core, that's where depth helps you."

UConn's depth will be on display once again on Wednesday when Iona (2-2) visits Gampel Pavilion for a non-conference game (7 p.m., SNY).

Through seven games, 10 different Huskies are averaging double figure minutes per game, with only senior Christian Vital breaking 30 minutes (31.1).

Hurley has a wealth of options off the bench, especially on the perimeter with sophomore Brendan Adams and freshmen James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney at his disposal. Junior Isaiah Whaley and redshirt sophomore Sidney Wilson, who returns to action on Wednesday after missing one game with a knee injury, provide support in the frontcourt.

The reserves have been productive, combining to average 31.8 points per game. At the head of the class is Bouknight, who's second on the team in scoring (13.8 points) to go with 4.5 rebounds in just 18.5 minutes per game.

UConn's starters are happy to have the help.

"The way coach Hurley plays, he's going to need the most energy that he can get," junior Tyler Polley said. "A 10-man rotation, I love it. It's a big key for us."

There are numerous benefits to having a deep bench, according to Hurley.

"It keeps your team fresher," Hurley said. "Obviously, it allows you to not go heavy minutes on your best players so you can be fresh to close games. It keeps your team happier because more guys are playing and there's less disgruntled guys in the locker room.

"If guys off the bench are giving us a lift, they're going to get more minutes. I'm not going into these games necessarily now saying I want to try to play this guy 34 (minutes) or this guy 16. We're still searching a little bit right now trying to just figure out the rotation."

The depth has helped the most on the defensive end. The Huskies are pressuring the ball and extending their defense more than earlier this season. They've forced 16.9 turnovers per game.

They plan at attacking the Gaels.

"We'll extend our defense a lot more and a lot more moving forward," Hurley said. "And we were afraid to do that earlier in the season. If you go back and watch the Sacred Heart game, we were picking our spots with getting after them.

"When you feel like you've got 10 guys that you're confident that you can put in the game, it allows you to really get after people defensively."

UConn (5-2) can't afford to let up against Iona, which has qualified for the NCAA tournament in each of the last four years. The Gaels are favored to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and return four starters, including senior E.J. Crawford who was a teammate of Vital's at St. Thomas More. They also play a tough match-up zone.

Hurley compares Iona to Buffalo, another strong mid-major program. UConn won a hard-fought battle against Buffalo, 79-68, at the Charleston Classic on Nov. 21.

"This is a team that's been to the NCAA tournament six of the last eight years," Hurley said. "It's going to be a Buffalo type of game. When it's all said and done at the end of the year, if we hope to play in the NCAA or NIT tournament, obviously wins versus conference favorites and likely NCAA tournament teams are really great ones to get.

"As a coach, hopefully I've pressed all the right buttons to have us emotionally and mentally ready to play. We need the students tomorrow, big-time. We need our crowd to come out because this is a very good team that we're playing."

g.keefe@theday.com

UCONN vs IONA

Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs

Tip: 7 p.m. (SNY)

Records: UConn 5-2, Iona 2-2

Last game: UConn beat Maine, 64-40, Sunday; Iona defeated Kennesaw State, 75-52, Nov. 23.

Probable starters: UConn, 6-0 r-jr. guard Alterique Gilbert (9.9 pts, 3.9 assists), 6-2 sr. guard Christian Vital (14.6 pts, 8.1 rebs, 3.3 assists, 3.3 steals), 6-8 jr. forward Tyler Polley (10 pts, 2.9 rebs), 6-9 r-fr. forward Akok Akok (5.4 pts, 5.9 rebs, 2.9 blks), 6-11 jr. center Josh Carlton (11.4 pts, 7.3 rebs)

Iona, 5-11 jr. guard Asante Gist (9 pts, 4.3 assists), 6-1 jr. guard Isaiah Washington (5.8 pts, 6.5 rebs), 6-6 sr. forward E.J. Crawford (15.3 pts, 5 rebs), 6-9 sr. forward Tajuan Agee (17 pts, 9 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Dylan van Eyck (5.3 pts, 4 rebs)

Noteworthy: Huskies won four of last five. ... Series: UConn leads, 3-1, winning last meeting 93-74 in 2009 in Hartford. ... Four starters return from NCAA tournament team. Only Division I program to capture conference tournament title in each of last four years. Favored to win MAAC. ... Agee earned MVP honors of MAAC/ASUN Challenge, averaging a double-double. ... Crawford, a preseason first team all-conference pick from Hartford, and Vital former teammates at St. Thomas More. ... Losses to Ohio and La Salle. Also beat Stetson. ... Gaels coming off an 11-day layoff. ... Associate head coach Tra Arnold has been in charge with coach Tim Cluess out with health issue. ... Top reserve: 6-4 jr. guard Isaiah Ross (8.5 pts, 4.5 rebs). ... Iona's zone will test UConn, which is shooting 33.3 percent from 3-pt range. ... Hot: Vital converted 18 straight free throws, ranking 4th in nation in FT percentage at 96.7. Cold: Iona converting 38 percent from field.. ... Reserve Sid Wilson, who missed last game with knee injury, will be available. ... Up next: UConn plays Indiana Dec. 10 in Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

— Gavin Keefe

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