Vital coming up big in rebounding department for UConn men

UConn's Christian Vital, a 6-foot-2 guard, is the Huskies' leading rebounder heading into the American Athletic Conference tournament, which begins on Thursday with a game against SMU in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
UConn's Christian Vital, a 6-foot-2 guard, is the Huskies' leading rebounder heading into the American Athletic Conference tournament, which begins on Thursday with a game against SMU in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Storrs — Sophomore Christian Vital, a 6-foot-2 guard, never backs down battling under the basket with the big boys.

He overcomes the height and might disadvantage with sheer desire and determination.

"It's just me competing, trying to just play hard and give it all I have," Vital said after Tuesday's practice at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center.

Heading into the American Athletic Conference Championship tournament opener Thursday against SMU in Orlando, Fla., Vital is on the verge of stamping his name in the UConn men's basketball record book in a unique category.

Vital will likely become the shortest Husky ever to lead the team in rebound average per game in a season. He's averaging a team-best 5.4, well ahead of his nearest teammate, 6-8 Terry Larrier, who's at 4.7. Jalen Adams, a 6-3 guard, is third at 4.2.

During the 1950-51 season, William Ebel, a 6-4 junior, finished with a team-high 9.0 rebounds per game. Every other rebound leader since then ranks on the height chart at 6-5 or taller.

Shabazz Napier, a 6-1 guard, nearly captured that category during the 2013-14 national championship season, but 6-9 DeAndre Daniels passed him for the lead during the Final Four. Napier grabbed 5.9 per game and Daniels 6.0.

So what's Vital's secret to the art of rebounding?

"He just wants the ball," coach Kevin Ollie said. "I don't know if he boxes out. I think he just goes and gets the basketball. He just comes flying in. I don't think I've seen him box out too many people. Even on the free throw line, I think he knows the worst free throw shooters and he flies in and gets those free throw rebounds.

"He got some in the Houston game (on Sunday) where he just said, 'that's going to be my basketball, that's going to be UConn basketball and I'm the toughest guy on the court.' And that's the type of mentality that you've got to have."

Ollie just wishes that Vital's teammates would embrace the same mentality. It's never a good sign when a guard is your leader in a category usually dominated by frontcourt players. No rebounding king at UConn has ever averaged less than Daniels' 5.5 per game in 2012-13.

Rebounding has been a season-long issue for the Huskies (14-17) and regularly impacted the outcome of games. They're 9-2 when they win the battle of the boards but obviously that hasn't happened nearly enough.

For the Huskies to advance deep in the AAC tournament, they'll have to improve under the basket.

"Rebound, rebound, rebound," Ollie said of what's been stressed in practice. "We can't win a tournament or can't win a game if we continue to rebound the way we've been performing on the backboards. We haven't done that well all season besides CV. He's been an extremely good rebounder for us, but we need somebody to join the party."

News and notes

• The Huskies are hoping to dodge the bad weather Wednesday. Their charter flight is scheduled to leave at noon from Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks. They had no luck trying to change their travel plans. "I just need to make sure I wake up in the morning first and then we'll worry about the plane," Ollie said. ... There's good chance the atmosphere will be on the quiet side for Thursday's noon time game. But Ollie believes UConn will have fan support. "Our band is coming. They're going to be traveling with us. My mom and dad are coming and their friends. So we're going to have some people in the stands. We're going to create our own energy. ... We're going to have some Husky fans cheering us on. I'm looking forward to getting down there." ... Adams is showing no signs of wearing down despite averaging a league-leading 38.1 minutes. He's scored at least 22 points in each of the last four games. "I just love the game so much. I hate sittting out. ... I just feel like a little kid out there. If coach isn't calling my name to come to the bench, then I'm definitley not going to ask him to come out."

g.keefe@theday.com

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