As the majority of the 2020 college basketball postseason was canceled, a great many players across the nation will live their lives never knowing whether or not they could have been champions.
Some of those players are confident enough, or in some cases crazy enough, to quickly answer the unknown question in the affirmative.
Christian Vital, who has never lacked confidence and by most accounts is not crazy, counts himself in that group.
The former UConn guard truly believes his Huskies were on the verge of a championship when the season was shut down March 12 due to coronavirus concerns. And Vital didn’t just mean an American Athletic Conference title. He insists UConn had a chance to hang the school’s fifth national championship banner.
“Everyone knows how UConn stories go,” Vital said on a conference call. “If you know basketball, if you know UConn history, I believe we were on our way to doing something special.”
Vital, who is working out in Louisville with former Kentucky guard Derek Anderson to prepare for the upcoming NBA Draft, points to the five-game winning streak the Huskies finished the season on, as well as the play of guys like himself, James Bouknight and Isaiah Whaley as evidence of an upcoming miracle.
“If you were watching our games throughout the last month, you could see the magic starting to happen,” Vital said.
The American Conference title, which the Huskies were set to open as the No. 5 seed with a 19-12 record before the tournament was canceled at the last moment, was almost a forgone conclusion in Vital’s mind.
“We were about to win the conference championship,” Vital said.
“I know coach (Dan Hurley) has said, ‘Make it to the weekend’ and stuff like that. He has to say that to be the head coach, to be politically correct,” Vital said. “But me, being the leader of the team, we were winning that championship.”
Vital may enjoy hyperbole more than the average player, but there it’s hard to exaggerate how impressive his career numbers, not to mention those he posted this season for the Huskies, are.
He finished his UConn career with 1,735 points, the 10th-highest total in school history. He also made 265 3-pointers, more than anyone else in UConn history other than Rashad Anderson (276), and had 215 steals, No. 3 in the UConn record books.
As a senior, the 6-foot-2 Vital averaged 16.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.5 steals and made 89.9 percent of his free throws. His steal average and his free throw percentage were both in the top 10 nationally.
Vital says he expected his play, and his team’s, to only get better as they went deeper into March.
“The way that I was playing at the end of the year and the numbers I was putting up, how efficient it was. I was coming into my own,” Vital said. “I feel like I was breaking out. I planned on using the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament to really put myself on the map.”
He was playing the best basketball of his career, and Vital was planning on using the 2020 postseason as a springboard to a career in professional basketball. He’s still planning the latter, of course, as he made clear when asked Tuesday about his plans for the near future.
“To play in the NBA. I plan on playing at the highest level of basketball,” Vital said.
Because he believed his team was peaking at the perfect time, the abrupt end to the season initially hurt Vital a great deal.
“In the first couple weeks I was pissed off. I didn’t believe it,” Vital said.
Eventually, however, the reality of the situation in the sports world and in the world in general sunk in to him.
“If LeBron and everyone else isn’t playing basketball then Christian isn’t going to be playing basketball,” Vital said.
His collegiate career is now behind him but Vital is hardly finished thinking about the Huskies. He’s already thinking about the legacy he’s leaving behind and the upward trajectory the program appears to be on.
“Eventually, when coach Hurley and the program do win another championship, I’m not going to necessarily take credit for that. That will be the guys who are on that team, who are on the court. Did I have a part in kind of bringing back the competitiveness and stuff like that? I believe that, of course,” Vital said.
The upcoming 2020-21 season, for instance, is going to be a good one for the Huskies, according to Vital. If for no other reason than the rising sophomore guard who began to develop into a star while playing alongside Vital.
“Bouk has things under control,” Vital says with a laugh about Bouknight.
Like many college seniors, Vital recently went through a graduation ceremony. Though, like the basketball season, it wasn’t the same as it usually is thanks to COVID-19. UConn, as many schools have done, staged a virtual graduation.
“I didn’t consider it a real graduation, in a way. You don’t get to walk across the stage. You wait four years to do that. It’s just unfortunate,” Vital said.
Had the graduation been staged in person, of course, Vital surely would have “won” that event, too.