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UConn men are still engaged in the learning process

The start of the men's college basketball season is more memorable for what's happened off the court rather than on it for the UConn Huskies.

They've had six games either postponed or canceled, played just five games and had two COVID-related pauses.

They went 17 days between games and then had a 10-day break before playing DePaul on Wednesday.

They're hoping to finally get into a regular routine.

Wednesday's game kicked off a busy stretch of 10 games in 33 days. Of course, that's assuming there won't be any more pandemic-related disruptions.

UConn has managed to fight through the adversity and jump out to a 4-1 overall start. The Huskies have shown flashes of their enormous potential in two Big East games, taking nationally-ranked Creighton to overtime before losing and then routing DePaul.

"We've missed a lot of time," coach Dan Hurley said after his team's first Big East win. "These guys have missed practice, they've missed games. It's going to take awhile for us to get comfortable. We just hope we're fortunate enough here. Since the summer, we've only had three players get COVID, so we've been really, really disciplined and we've had really, really bad luck with when it's happened for us.

"If we can just get games and get practices and actually get into the season like everyone else is, I think this team can be really good."

The Huskies will find out a lot more about themselves during a three-game road trip that starts at Marquette on Tuesday, then heads to Butler Jan. 9 and DePaul Jan. 11.

Let's ring in the New Year by taking a look at where things stand at this point:

First, the bright spots.

• Sophomore James Bouknight has already established himself as a contender for Big East Player of the Year honors. He's first in the league in scoring at 23.2 points per game. And he's a joy to watch. His steal, behind-the-back move and windmill dunk against DePaul ranked as the top play on ESPN's SportsCenter.

On Wednesday, Bouknight had his third game this season of at least 20 points, finishing with 20 points in a performance that Hurley graded as a C-plus. He hit that mark only three times all last season.

• Transfer Tyrese Martin is the tough guy that UConn needs. He's a physical force inside and has some perimeter skills as well. He's almost averaging a double-double at 10.3 points and a league high-tying 9.3 rebounds. He has a team-best 15 offensive rebounds and he's also a defensive pest.

"He's obviously really physical," Hurley said. "He's got great physical stature and he's super athletic. He's got a toughness about him. He's more a streaky shooter, more of a guy that's maybe 1 for 3 three-point guy.

"Because of everything we've missed during the summer and preseason and the secret scrimmages and the exhibition and then all the non-conference games, we're just learning on the fly how to use him and where he can be effective."

Martin's 22 points, 10-rebound performance against DePaul is a sign of things to come.

"Coming to this school, I knew what the expectations were and I had to fulfill them, but I don't think I'm done," Martin said. "I still have more that I can do. I feel like playing in the Big East and what I'm doing right now is going to help me and this team be successful."

• Rebounding is an area of strength for the Huskies who've won the battle of the boards in four of five games. They're outrebounding foes by 7.8 per game. If senior Josh Carlton continues to give the same determined effort as he did against DePaul while grabbing 10 rebounds, UConn will be even better in that department.

• An aggressive, smothering defense is the team's calling card. They've pressured opponents into shooting 39.6 percent, forced 14.2 turnovers per game and allowed 65.4 points, ranking them first in the league in scoring defense. They've done a stellar job containing the opposing team's top scorers. Case in point: DePaul's Big East preseason first team pick Charlie Moore had just eight points, well below his 20.5 points per game average.

"My teams and how I build programs is at the defensive end of the court," Hurley said. "If you're a high level defensive team, you're going to have a chance to win every single night that you step on the floor."

Here's what the Huskies need to work on:

• Hurley would say everything if you asked him. But let's start with the offense.

The Huskies have been an erratic offensive team. After blowing out an overmatched Central Connecticut (102-75) in the season opener on Nov. 25, they bogged down over the next three games with Bouknight being the only reliable scorer.

Some of their struggles can be attributed to the disruptions in the practice and game schedules.

The Huskies had a breakout night on Wednesday, as five different players scored eight or more points. R.J. Cole and Martin are starting to take some pressure off of Bouknight to produce, averaging 10.6 and 10.3 points, respectively, but they can do more.

After shooting 49.2 percent against DePaul, the Huskies raised their overall field goal percentage to 44.3 percent. But they're only converting 32.4 percent from 3-point range.

"We've got to get more people going right now," Hurley said. "We've got to get (Jalen) Gaffney right. We obviously got to get Tyler (Polley) and Isaiah (Whaley) going right now. Isaiah's struggled in the last two games.

"... If we don't get better offensively and continue to get better, we'll have more excruciating close losses."

• Whaley's slow start is a mild concern. This is supposed to be his big year after playing so well down the stretch last season. Foul trouble has prevented him from being a factor, especially in the last two games. The Huskies are clearly a better team when the senior forward is on the court. He's still averaging 8.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 23.1 minutes per game.

• If UConn's turnover troubles continue, it will cost the Huskies some games. The Huskies have more turnovers (67) than assists (66) overall. Cole leads the team in assists with 19 while Bouknight has a team-high 14 turnovers.

Of course, it's too early to make an accurate assessment of the Huskies. They're still in the early stages of development. January will be a revealing month. And hopefully a far better month for UConn than December turned out to be.

"One of the other downsides of the COVID thing is you're learning about your team in game two of conference play," Hurley said. "There's just going to be more evolving and adapting as we learn more."

g.keefe@theday.com

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