There's no March Madness for UConn, but future holds some promise

While the spotlight shines brightly on March Madness, UConn will sit home in the shadows once again.

It seems like more than three years ago that they earned an invitation to college basketball's marquee event.

Since beating Colorado and losing to Kansas in the 2016 NCAA tournament, UConn has suffered through three straight losing seasons, going a combined 46-52 overall, 22-32 in the American Athletic Conference.

They rarely come up in March Madness conversation, except when talk turns to past national champions or highlights of magical moments flash across the screen.

Yet signs exist that the program is heading in a positive direction.

While their record (16-17) didn't show it, the Huskies made significant progress in Dan Hurley's first season.

"We have to look back on the strides that we made, individually and as a team," junior Christian Vital said. "When this group first got together, between the coaching staff and the team, we didn't know what to expect. We didn't know what was going to happen.

"But everyone stayed with it, everyone kept fighting until the end."

Hurley's massive rebuilding project is just getting started. He has a blueprint from other his successful program turnarounds at Wagner and Rhode Island, but he can't just wave a magic wand and turn the Huskies back into a postseason team again.

The 2018-19 season went about as Hurley expected.

"There are no delusions of grandeur with this coaching staff," Hurley said last week. "Throughout the year, we've known exactly where we are at. If we don't have the injuries with Alterique and Jalen, obviously we could have represented ourselves maybe better throughout the course of the year.

"We've known where we're at, how far we have to go."

Here's three reasons to be upbeat about UConn's future:

• The program's competitive spirit is back.

That's one of the encouraging developments this past season.

The Huskies went from losing a school-record eight games by at least 20 points in 2017-18 to just two, including a humbling 39-point season-ending downer against No. 11 Houston in the AAC tournament quarterfinals.

Eleven of their 17 losses came by eight points or less. Injuries derailed the Huskies at times, with the starting backcourt of Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert sitting out a combined 15 games.

Consider those tough losses valuable learning experiences.

"We have guys that play significant minutes that aren't quite ready to win at the level that we'd all like to win at," Hurley said. "But they're progressing, they're developing... Our program has just got to mature.

"Listen, this is how it's supposed to look. The first step, the first stage of this rebuild is you go from looking not really competitive and a little bit out of it to then, boom, we're in a fight in just about every one of these with some frustrating losses. The next step that we're going to have to take, which is going to be a tough one, is winning these close games.

"Everyone in that locker room has got to work on their game. The returning guys have got to work on their games so they'll be good enough to help us win these games."

• Several Huskies took an important step forward in their development.

"I think we made a lot of progress toward the end," sophomore Josh Carlton said.

Carlton enjoyed a breakout season, sharing the AAC's most improved player award, and provided an inside presence that was sorely lacking in recent years. He really raised his level of play in the last 12 games, averaging 11.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks.

Gilbert, a veteran by his age but not game experience, is another key part of the program's foundation. He's earned the respect of his teammates and considered the Huskies' heartbeat. But there's a legitimate concern about whether the electrifying guard can remain healthy. After playing a total of nine games his first two seasons, he appeared in 25 this season.

The off-season will be vital for forwards Tyler Polley and Sidney Wilson, two players both in need of expanding their games. Primarily a three-point specialist, Polley raised his scoring average from 2.7 to 8.4 points per game from his freshman to sophomore seasons. Wilson, who has freakish athleticism but unpolished offensive skills, will greatly benefit from more time in the gym and in the weight room.

Hurley has faith that guard Brendan Adams, who shot just 30 percent from the field in a limited reserve role in his first season, will become the player that he projected during the recruiting process. Forward Isaiah Whaley has much work to do to earn a spot in the rotation after playing an average of 3.6 minutes in 23 appearances. Reserve forward Mamadou Diarra's chronic knee issues have prevented him from contributing.

Vital is an interesting case. No one plays harder or gets under Hurley's skin more than the veteran guard. He was second in scoring (14.2 points) and rebounding (5.6) and first in steals (52). His field goal percentage jumped from 38 percent to a career-best 45 percent.

Last year, Vital explored his NBA draft options before electing to return. He declined to talk about his future after the season-ending loss last week.

• Hurley will relentlessly work to bring the program back to an elite level.

He's already injected intensity, passion and energy into the Huskies. Now he needs to upgrade the talent. The frontcourt could definitely use some help.

Hurley's out on the recruiting trail this week to try to add to a strong class that already includes forward Akok Akok, and guards James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney. Akok, who practiced with the Huskies while sitting out the second semester, has impressed the coaching staff.

The loss of Jalen Adams, the team's leading scorer and playmaker, will be the most difficult void to fill, but the Huskies are optimistic about their future.

"We've got a lot of young guys on the roster right now, a good class coming in next year," Carlton said. "I feel like we've got a lot of ahead of us."

g.keefe@theday.com

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