Bouknight is UConn men's basketball's best player, but Hurley cautions against sophomore trying to be superhero

Published on Thursday, 18 March 2021 21:08
Written by NEIL OSTROUT

JOURNAL INQUIERER

James Bouknight, if it wasn’t already evidenced by his elbow injury and absence from the UConn lineup earlier this year, is not made of steel.

His coach, Dan Hurley, wants the Huskies’ star sophomore to remember that fact.

No, Hurley isn’t worried about Bouknight getting hurt again - though he will tell you the 6-foot-5 guard absorbs more than his share of uncalled fouls. The coach is merely pointing out that Bouknight doesn’t have to try and be Superman when he takes to the court this weekend in the NCAA Tournament.

Yes, Bouknight could become just the sixth sophomore in UConn history to average at least 20 points per game but Hurley wants to make it clear that he doesn’t have to do it all alone.

There are pictures of the previous UConn heroes of March Madness plastered all over the walls of the Werth Center where Bouknight and the Huskies practice daily. But men such as Richard Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker, and Shabazz Napier didn’t get those displays by playing in a one-man band.

“You can get caught up in it playing in a place like this,” Hurley said, describing his message to Bouknight for the postseason. “You don’t have to put on your cape for us. Great players in UConn’s history that had these great performances in big spots, they don’t force it. It happens organically. James has to let the game come to him a little bit more and not put that type of pressure on himself.

“When he dropped 40 on Creighton, he didn’t go into that game saying, ‘I’m going to get 40.’ That’s the way the game broke for him in terms of opportunities.”

Hurley was referencing Bouknight’s effort against Creighton in the Big East tournament semifinals, to a degree. Bouknight, who was battling severe cramps the night before against DePaul, had a modest 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting against Creighton and missed the potential game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds.

“I probably played my worst game in a UConn uniform,” Bouknight said. “I was harder on myself than anybody else was. It took me a couple days to calm down and gather myself. I know I let a lot of people down that night. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to go out and perform like everybody knows I can play.”

Hurley isn’t quite so harsh with his evaluation. Yes, he admits Bouknight could have performed better but in a knock-down, drag-out, defensive fight like the one UConn and Creighton staged, Bouknight doesn’t have to feel bad at all.

“James Bouknight has done so much for UConn basketball,” Hurley said. “His decision to come here has changed the landscape, along with Akok (Akok) and Jalen (Gaffney) and R.J. (Cole). James doesn’t have to explain his performance to anybody, what he’s done for UConn basketball and where this thing was at a couple years ago.

“James will make some adjustments and he’ll play great this week.”

Bouknight readily admits he played just a tad selfish against the Bluejays. And he knows it’s not all about him when UConn takes the court.

“(Hurley) tells me all the time, great players find their offense within the flow of the game,” Bouknight said. “We don’t need anyone to save this team. We’re a great team. We have a lot of pieces.”

Cole is averaging 12.3 points per game and junior Tyrese Martin 10.7, senior Tyler Polley has erupted on occasion, and freshman Adama Sanogo is developing into a ferocious post presence, so it’s not like the Huskies are without scoring options if Bouknight is off.

“I just want to do whatever it takes to win. Whether that’s going out and scoring 30, whether that’s getting 10 assists or grabbing 10 rebounds. Whatever I need to do in order to help this team win, I’m going to do,” Bouknight said.

Although his elbow isn’t too much of a worry any longer, the Huskies do have some health concerns in regards to Bouknight. He was cramping so badly in the Big East quarterfinals against DePaul that he had to be carried into the locker room in the second half by UConn trainer James Doran and another staffer.

His fluid level and potassium level and energy level seemed better the next night, but Hurley and the Huskies are constantly preaching to Bouknight about his hydration these days.

“He’s got to have that personal discipline to hydrate during the game,” Hurley said. “We can’t lose a game this time of year because James didn’t take in enough fluids.”

Bouknight’s plans for the future aren’t exactly fluid. All indications are he will forgo his final two years of eligibility and enter this summer’s NBA Draft.

Before he leaves, Bouknight is anxious to get the full UConn experience, which often involves a run deep into March.

“I can’t even explain the feeling. Over the past three days my emotions have been up and down. This is what you work for the whole year, to be able to play under these bright lights,” Bouknight said. “All the tough practices, coach screaming at us, all the brutal days, this is what you work for. This is what you want to be a part of.”

Reaching the NCAA Tournament, and ending UConn’s five-year drought in the event, was obviously important to Bouknight when he decided to attend UConn in the first place.

“I don’t think this was a big goal, this was the main goal,” Bouknight said. “This is something you dream about, man.”

For a program that has won four national championships, the most recent in 2014, Hurley is perhaps employing a bit of hyperbole when he describes the impact Bouknight has had on the Huskies, but it’s clear Bouknight has helped re-energize the fan base and returned UConn to what it perceives as its rightful place.

“This place was in shambles when he got here and now we’re getting a chance to enjoy the Selection Show,” Hurley said.



Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Thursday, 18 March 2021 21:08. Updated: Thursday, 18 March 2021 21:10.