The most surprising thing about the UConn men’s basketball team’s most recent game wasn’t the outcome or the individual performances. It was the opening tap.
The Huskies have been switching starting lineups as often as most people switch socks. Through their first 14 games, coach Kevin Ollie sent out 12 different starting lineups.
So when Jalen Adams, Christian Vital, Terry Larrier, Isaiah Whaley and Josh Carlton trotted out for tipoff against East Carolina, the same group that started three days earlier against Tulsa, it was a rather odd sight.
Adams and Larrier are obviously entrenched as starters. And Vital, whether he starts or not, is one of the Huskies’ top dogs.
But against East Carolina, and in recent games, it’s been clear that another position is being solidified at UConn (8-7, 1-2 AAC). Whaley is beginning to establish himself as indispensable to Ollie’s game plans.
“Oh, man. I’m elated with that kid,” Ollie said after Whaley had seven points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes against the Pirates, the first two of which were each shy of his season highs. “That kid, he embodies whatever UConn is all about.”
What UConn was about Saturday was winning, something it dearly needed after four straight losses. The Huskies hope Whaley’s play, not to mention others, leads to a streak in the other direction now.
Whaley, a 6-foot-8 freshman from Gastonia, North Carolina, who came to the Huskies from Mount Zion Prep in Baltimore, has drawn some comparisons to a young Dennis Rodman for his energy and his rebounding ability. Whaley admits he’s even watched some old footage of Rodman’s playing days after receiving the compliment.
But Ollie likes to compare his young forward to basketball players with more local ties, a few of his former teammates.
“You can go down the line, Rod Sellers, Lyman DePriest, all those guys are in him. That’s what we want. We have to get more guys like him, playing with that intensity, playing with that focus,” Ollie said of Whaley.
“He’s going to make a couple mistakes but I can deal with it because he’s playing with level five energy,” Ollie added.
Whaley isn’t exactly a center but he’s been playing in the middle a great deal for the Huskies, too, not that he minds.
“I just want to bring consistency at the big man spot, the four or the five, wherever he puts me,” Whaley said. “I just want to bring consistency and energy.”
It’s the energy that Whaley has apparently showed in practice that makes his teammates unsurprised that the lanky freshman is becoming a key cog for the Huskies.
“He does what we expect him to do. He’s been playing this way in practice,” Adams said. “It’s good to see it translate into the game.”
Despite sticking with the same starting lineup for consecutive games, Ollie didn’t exactly trim his rotation on Saturday. He played all 11 of his available scholarship players before the game even reached halftime.
Whaley’s minutes, however, are likely to keep increasing.
“He’s hungry, he’s passionate, he wants to get better,” Ollie said.
UConn will welcome Central Florida to Storrs for a clash Wednesday night, and there’s a chance the Knights (12-4, 3-1) will be at full strength again.
Guard B.J. Taylor, one of UCF’s best players, has missed the last 15 games while recovering from a fractured foot suffered in the opener. The original estimate for Taylor’s return was 4-6 weeks but that deadline has come and gone.
“B.J. is day to day. He’s getting better, that’s for sure,” UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said Monday. “It’s going to be when it’s right, when he feels it’s right.”
Adams was named to the American Athletic Conference’s weekly honor roll Monday. He averaged 23.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Huskies’ two games last week.
Cincinnati’s Jacob Evans was the league’s player of the week, and UCF’s Ceasar DeJesus was the rookie of the week.