Hurley's Huskies have shown a lot of resolve
Adversity has been UConn's constant companion this season.
The Huskies have dealt with two COVID-19 related shutdowns, seven games either postponed or canceled, injuries to sophomore James Bouknight and freshman reserve Andre Jackson and starting the season without a key member of the rotation in Akok Akok.
Yet they've kept on winning, relying on a lock-down defense, competitive heart and toughness, just like during the program's glory days. They just completed a successful three-game road trip, beating Marquette, Butler and DePaul. In the previous two seasons, they won only four road games combined.
Coach Dan Hurley's rebuilding project is right on schedule.
The 25th-ranked Huskies are off to the best start in Hurley's three seasons at 7-1 overall and have won four straight overall, including two without Bouknight (hyperextended elbow), the team's leading scorer. Only UConn (4-1), Creighton (6-1) and Villanova (3-0) have fewer than two league losses.
Dating back to last season, they've won 12 of their last 13 games.
They've developed a winner's mindset, not allowing anything to deter them from their mission. Not even an 18-point deficit at Marquette last week.
This season, the Huskies increased their depth and talent by adding a strong freshmen class and impact transfers in R.J. Cole (Howard) and Tyrese Martin (Rhode Island) who've made significant contributions.
Cole and Martin combined for 30 points, seven rebounds, five assists and nine steals and fueled a game-ending 8-0 run in Monday's 60-53 win at DePaul.
"We returned a number of guys from last year that won a lot at the end of last year," Hurley said after Monday's victory. "R.J (Cole) was around them winning sitting out last year. ... Tyrese was coming from a place where he played for an excellent coach. And we've got a good group of freshmen.
"Once you get over that hump that you go through during a rebuild where it's just brutality the first year or two, or however long it takes to turn it (around) and develop a winner's mindset, that landed on us last year. And now it's in the bones of our program."
UConn showed the ability to win in different ways during the road trip. The Huskies scored their biggest comeback win since Feb. 2012 against Marquette in a game in which Bouknight suffered his injury. Riding the hot shooting of senior Tyler Polley, they took command early against Butler and never let up. Then they overcame shaky shooting from the foul line and 3-point distance against DePaul.
Struggling offensively, UConn applied a defensive stranglehold, allowing an average of 55.6 points and forcing 16 turnovers per game on the trip. They rank first in the Big East in scoring defense at 61.75 points.
"That's what emerging teams, or good teams do, you find a way to win...," Hurley said. "There were so many plays (Monday) that said that this wasn't going to be our night. But this group is tough and they found a way."
The Huskies also received key contributions from a variety of players.
Winning two games without Bouknight will certainly boost UConn's confidence.
"We've been handling it pretty well," Cole said. "With Bouk missing, that's a lot of scoring for us and good defense from him. But we have a pretty deep team. That's the biggest thing about us. Any given night someone else can step up and that's what we've been doing. ... And that's what we want to continue to do until we figure out when he comes back.
"That speaks to our togetherness and our accountability to each other. When one man goes down, the next man steps up."
It's uncertain when Bouknight, who wore a brace on his left elbow while watching from the bench on Monday, will return.
After the DePaul game, Hurley said he didn't anticipate Bouknight missing a lot of time.
UConn has a nice break to recover from its long road trip before hosting St. John's on Monday. Villanova had to postpone its visit to Storrs on Friday for COVID-19 related reasons, so that showdown will have to wait.
The Huskies plan on sticking around in the top 25 after entering the poll on Monday for the first time since 2016.
"It just goes to show that UConn basketball is on the way to what it was," Martin said of the ranking. "We're not here to just be satisfied at No. 25. We're here to be our best come March, so we're just going to keep pushing every day, practicing the way we practice and eventually we're going to be one of the top teams in the country."
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