Loyalty of UConn seniors Carlton, Polley and Whaley finally being rewarded
They began their college basketball careers during a stormy period in UConn basketball history.
During their arduous journey, seniors Josh Carlton, Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley endured a coaching change, blowout defeats, consecutive losing seasons, personal struggles and finally playing basketball during a pandemic.
But they stuck it out and stayed loyal to the program.
Now they're enjoying the rewards, playing for a team that has locked up third in the Big East and is on track to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016.
They'll be honored in a brief Senior Day ceremony prior to Saturday's regular season finale against Big East foe Georgetown (noon, Ch. 3) at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs.
They've helped change the program's direction and culture for the better.
"It's extremely satisfying, especially being here all these years and not being close to making the tournament," Whaley said. "It makes you really grateful, especially being in the position that we're in, especially from last year playing with somebody like Christian Vital and the year before with Jalen Adams, playing with these really good players that never got to experience the tournament. And to be part of the class that might actually have a chance to do it, it's just a special feeling."
Whaley, Carlton and Polley had just completed their freshman year when Dan Hurley was hired as head coach in late March 2018.
At the time, Hurley saw them as an important part of the program's rebuilding process.
"When we got there, things were messy," Hurley said. "And we identified Josh and Tyler and Isaiah as young men with work ethic and character, who came from great families, we could take on a rebuild of this magnitude with those guys as foundation pieces in terms of the culture. Those guys have really changed the trajectory of the program the last three years.
"The fact they wanted to stay and they knew it was going to be hard and they knew it wasn't going to be instant gratification because of how bad a shape things were, their legacy is cemented with the shape that they potentially will leave the program in, if this is their last season."
So why did they stay at UConn?
It certainly would have been easier to transfer and start fresh somewhere else.
"Because it's UConn," Polley said. "I can't imagine going anywhere else. Our name is so big, the history behind this program, I can't imagine going somewhere else. That's why I stuck it out. Just try to be part of something special and bring back UConn to where it was."
Carlton added: "Probably just a sense of loyalty to the program and wanting to be a part of something bigger than myself."
With their help, UConn (13-6, 10-6) is playing its best basketball, winning five of the last six.
The Hoyas (9-11, 7-8) are hot, too, going 4-1 in their last five. Their only loss came 10 days ago at home against UConn, which rode a strong second half to a 70-57 victory.
With momentum on their side and the Big East tournament starting next week, Hurley has not-so-subtly reminded his Huskies to stay on course.
"Finish, finish, finish, finish, finish, finish," Hurley said. "I said finish the last two days probably two thousand times, maybe more. This year has meant a lot to everyone involved with the program, the fans, the school. It's brought a lot of excitement back. So let's finish."
Whaley, Carlton and Polley are determined to finish their careers by leading the Huskies on a postseason run, starting with Thursday night's tournament quarterfinal game at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Their goal is simple: Win every game they play from here on out.
Considering where they started their careers, they've already accomplished a great deal.
When asked about a favorite memory, Whaley talked about seeing the shift and change in the program, especially late last season when the energy and vibe just felt different.
"Everybody started believing and feeling that change was coming and we were starting to be back," Whaley said. "Just experience that and be part of it, that's one of the best feelings."
Carlton said his favorite moment hasn't happened yet.
"I think when our name gets called on Selection Sunday and we'll be able to play in the tournament, I think that will be my favorite moment just to experience my first Selection Sunday with the team," he said.
As far as their future, all three players will think about that after the final buzzer of the season. They could possibly return next season because the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic.
Hurley will have that discussion with each of them during the off-season.
"Just focus on the season," Polley said. "We have a special team. We can do something amazing this year. I'll just worry about that after the season is over."
Prior to Saturday's game, UConn also will honor junior Brendan Adams, who's on track to graduate in May.
"He's the hardest worker and an incredible example of everything you want in your program," Hurley said.