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Injuries have weakened UConn's depth

UConn's depth was considered the team's strength entering the season.

Coach Dan Hurley's recruiting efforts paid off.

He could finally look down the bench during games and have some reliable options.

That's not the case right now.

Injuries have eroded that depth. The loss of sophomore standout James Bouknight has particularly hurt.

And some players expected to make a regular contribution off the bench haven't so far, putting more pressure on some starters to lift up the team.

The 23rd-ranked Huskies are still in good shape overall, holding a 7-2 record, 4-2 in the Big East Conference. If not for missing some late game free throws against St. John's and Creighton, they'd be undefeated.

They'll need more production from every healthy player on the roster to survive what's expected to be at least a few more weeks without Bouknight.

Before the month ends, they'll face two ranked teams in No. 11 Creighton (Saturday in Omaha, Neb.) and No. 3 Villanova (Jan. 28), host Butler (Jan. 26) and visit St. John's (Jan. 31), a team that just beat them, 74-70, on Monday.

"We need more from some people to overcome it," Hurley said of Bouknight's absence. "You take one of the best players in the country off your team, that's going to cause a lot of problems when we don't have a lot of natural scorers."

Junior Tyrese Martin, redshirt R.J. Cole and senior Tyler Polley have been UConn's most consistent scorers in recent action. They've each led the team in scoring in the last three games. Senior Isaiah Whaley also can add some scoring punch.

But they're streaky, capable of carrying the Huskies for stretches, not entire games.

Several players have underachieved this season, with senior Josh Carlton headlining a list that also includes sophomore Jalen Gaffney and junior Brendan Adams.

After appearing in 96 games, including starting 81, in his first three seasons, Carlton lost his starting frontcourt job to freshman Adama Sanogo. He showed promise early on with two strong games off the bench in wins over USC on Dec. 3 and DePaul on Dec. 30. Since then, he's tailed off, contributing a combined nine points and 10 rebounds in the last four games to drop his season averages to 4.1 points and 4.5 rebounds. He played only three minutes against St. John's.

Prior to the season, Hurley predicted Gaffney, a sophomore guard, would be the biggest surprise on the team. Gaffney's improved play late last season and his off-season gains made him a good choice.

But Gaffney has struggled, averaging 5.4 points while playing 20.3 minutes per game. He's shooting 34 percent.

"We can't afford him to not play better," Hurley said. "He's a core guy, first recruiting class guy. Back to back games he's played less than 12 minutes. Without James out, we needed the big second year bump from him to make this thing work. Especially with James out. Now we're desperate to get improved second year play. But he's gotta get out there and do it. He's got to believe in himself. He's got to get out there and make plays.

"We've got to get more production out of him. We've got to get more out of Brendan (Adams)."

Adams, a junior, started the season with a good performance, scoring 15 points against Central Connecticut on Nov. 25. He hasn't scored in double figures since the season opener. Starting in Bouknight's spot the last three games, he's averaged 6.7 points.

And don't expect to count on redshirt sophomore forward Akok Akok for a while. Making a comeback from Achilles injury, Akok just isn't physically ready to contribute.

Hurley has used Akok sparingly. Akok has played a total of 11 minutes and scored two points in the three games since making his season debut.

"It's a challenging situation because he's the heart and soul, he's a pillar of this thing," Hurley said. "Akok and Bouk are guys that are building blocks that we're building this thing around in year three to make this big move. Akok is not ready to be out there physically.

"Just so much rust, he missed so much time. We're really going to have to just try to develop him in practice and just get him in a place where maybe he can help us at some point this year. ... He's going to help our team but he's just so far behind, less than a year back from Achilles (surgery). He's really struggled while he's in there."

Add up the offensive contribution of Akok, Carlton, Gaffney and Adams, and they're only contributing an average of 15.9 points per game.

Some help may be on the way.

Freshman guard Andre Jackson is getting closer to returning to action. He's missed five straight games with a broken bone in his hand. He's been participating in some drills during practice.

When Jackson does return, he'll require time to find his footing and adjust to being a freshman playing in the Big East.

Until Bouknight returns, the Huskies will have to play with maximum effort, play elite defense and grab more than their share of rebounds and loose balls to overcome their offensive issues and continue to be successful in the Big East.

g.keefe@theday.com

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