STORRS - James Bouknight is not rusty. And UConnâ€™s opponents for the rest of the season should be worried.
Bouknight returned from his six-week stint on the sidelines for the UConn menâ€™s basketball team Tuesday night and was as electrifying as ever, even if his defense and his jump shot need just a little time to reach optimal efficiency.
â€śHe stumbled around a little bit out there, but youâ€™re talking about one of the premier guards in the country,â€ť UConn coach Dan Hurley said of Bouknight after the Huskiesâ€™ 73-61 win over Providence in Gampel Pavilion.
Stumbled once or twice, perhaps, but Bouknight also soared against the Friars.
Bouknight did not start, but made an immediate impact when he entered the lineup some six minutes after tipoff.
He helped force a Friar turnover near half-court and lobbed the ball to Tyrese Martin on the fastbreak to give his team an early 11-4 lead.
A moment later, on what was technically his first shot attempt, Bouknight rose high above the court for a tip-dunk that surely would have brought the house down had there been more than a handful fans in the building.
â€śWhat was going through my mind? That obviously Iâ€™m a better coach now. My job has gotten easier,â€ť Hurley said with a laugh, admitting that Bouknight performed better than the coach expected in his first game back.
Bouknight, who finished with 18 points, missed the Huskiesâ€™ previous eight games after injuring his left elbow Jan. 5 against Marquette. He explained after Tuesdayâ€™s game that he had surgery on the elbow the following week to remove a bone spur and do â€śsome cleanup.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s been my teammates and the staff thatâ€™s kept me positive throughout this whole process,â€ť Bouknight said.
He met with his surgeon on a video call late Monday evening and UConn announced a few hours before Tuesdayâ€™s game that Bouknight had been cleared to play.
Bouknight admitted he wanted to return to the court sooner, especially while watching his team struggle at times as they went 4-4 without him.
â€śIt was very frustrating. Having to sit on the bench knowing that thereâ€™s not much I can do to help the team win. Thatâ€™s the worst feeling,â€ť Bouknight said.
As his time away from the action dragged on, some had thought Bouknight might simply sit out the remainder of the season and prepare for the NBA Draft. That apparently wasnâ€™t an option.
â€śIt means a lot to him to have played in this place, the history, the tradition,â€ť Hurley said.
Hurley knows very well that after the season Bouknight is going to depart for the professional ranks, but both parties hope itâ€™s not before creating more fireworks in the college game.
The Huskies were a bubble team of sorts without Bouknight, but would appear to be much closer to securing a spot in the field of 68 and ending the programâ€™s five-year NCAA drought with him on board.
â€śThe goal is still to make the tournament,â€ť Bouknight said. â€śAnd with this team healthy, we feel like we can make a run in that tournament.â€ť
Bouknight made seven of his 13 shots from the floor Tuesday and four of five free throws. He added four rebounds, two assists, and two steals.
He left the game with about six minutes left with a leg cramp but said later that he was â€śfine.â€ť
Now, UConnâ€™s team is quite a bit more than fine. The Huskies are 10-5, with five regular season games remaining.
With a healthy Bouknight and a suddenly deep roster, UConn is poised to make some noise in March as the program often does.
â€śThis is what we envisioned. But we donâ€™t have a lot of time to get this group together,â€ť Hurley said. â€śThis group did a really good job of holding on and winning enough so our season didnâ€™t blow up. And now weâ€™re almost fully loaded here with five games left and letâ€™s see what we can do.â€ť
Bouknightâ€™s return has already emboldened Hurley a bit. After Tuesdayâ€™s game he brought his team back onto the court to celebrate in front of the student section in Gampel Pavilion - a normally raucous space that was filled with nothing but carboard cutouts on this night.
â€śI was a little immature. I acted like there were fans there and I wanted to celebrate something,â€ť Hurley said.
But the coach took it a step further. He virtually guaranteed victories in the teamâ€™s two final home games this season, Feb. 27 against Marquette and March 5 against Georgetown.
â€śWeâ€™re not losing any more in here,â€ť Hurley said. â€śWeâ€™ve lost too much in Gampel.â€ť
Hurleyâ€™s message to the opposition? Bouknightâ€™s back, and youâ€™re gonna be in trouble.