Maryland defensive ace Morsell eager to guard UConn men's basketball's Bouknight

Published on Thursday, 18 March 2021 21:36
Written by NEIL OSTROUT

JOURNAL INQUIRER

Much like a few other UConn men’s basketball teams in recent history, the current Huskies aren’t easy to read.

They closed the regular season with a flourish, but are coming off a tough loss in the league tournament.

They have played some good basketball for long stretches, but also had several hiccups - most with star James Bouknight sidelined with an injury - along the way.

“I think we’re a tricky team right now. We don’t quite know what level we can take this to,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said this week as he prepared his team for its NCAA Tournament opener against Maryland.

The Huskies will take on the Terps Saturday night at Purdue University as a No. 7 seed. The last time the Huskies were a 7, they marched all the way to the Final Four and then claimed the program’s fourth national championship.

It would seem to be too much to ask this group to match that amazing run; then again some are whispering it might be possible. Of course, others are whispering Maryland (16-13) has a pretty good shot to advance and send UConn home quickly.

Hurley admits he sees both sides of the coin.

“There is a mystery as to who we are going into this tournament. Which is kind of exciting,” Hurley said. “I think we’re a hard team to predict. Are we a one-and-done or can we make a run?”

His players, as players are often wont, don’t see it as a choice. They feel they’re primed for March.

“I feel like we’re very slept on and we can make a run in this tournament,” senior forward Isaiah Whaley said.

UConn is making its first tournament appearance since 2016. Hurley’s rebuilding plan is on schedule, he says, and there signs both in recruiting and on-court results that the Huskies are headed back to a place of prominence in the college basketball world.

But is this the season when they take a huge step forward?

It’s hard to say. UConn boast a good 15-7 record this season. The Huskies are 11-3, however, in games Bouknight has played. And one could argue, perhaps a bit facetiously, that UConn had two of those games that ended in losses - both times to Creighton - in the bag before odd circumstances cost them.

Point guard R.J. Cole shockingly missed two free throws at the end of regulation in UConn’s first clash with the Bluejays, allowing the visitors to send the game to overtime and eventually win. And in their meeting Friday night, Cole was knocked to the ground and bloodied, missing the game’s final four minutes.

Hurley isn’t making such claims, nor does he necessarily put all of the blame on UConn’s loss in New York on Cole’s absence. Yes, the junior contributes greatly to the Huskies’ attack, but the coach was more concerned with his team’s lack of rebounding passion than what lineup he had on the floor.

UConn was out-rebounded by Creighton 50-33 in that game, allowing the Bluejays 17 offensive boards. That’s not typical for a Husky team that finished second in the Big East in rebound margin and among the national leaders in offensive rebounds.

Hurley expects better from his group this weekend.

“We have to stick to our identity as a team. We rebound the heck out of the ball. We guard people. It all starts there for us,” Hurley said.

“What happened to us on the backboard is a huge reason why we lost the other day (to Creighton). It’s really the singular reason, our inability to defensive rebound. When you have guys like Isaiah Whaley and Tyrese Martin, you shouldn’t lose that way.”

Whaley says it’s not a mystery why UConn struggled on the boards. He believes there was a lack of effort by he and his teammates.

“It’s mainly about just mindset and effort,” Whaley said. “Sometimes a team may go into a game thinking they have to win a different way. That’s what we did against Creighton. Some of us, we went into the game and went away from our tough mindset.”

The winner of the UConn-Maryland game will get either No. 2 Alabama or No. 15 Iona in the second round on Monday.

The Huskies can hardly be considered a trendy pick to get through the Crimson Tide, though some have predicted as much.

The only thing Hurley is fairly certain of is that there won’t be a lack of confidence from his team.

“We’re excited about (the) week. We feel like we can play with anybody and potentially beat anybody,” Hurley said.

This is UConn’s 34th appearance in the NCAA Tournament but no one on the roster has any experience in the event, other than the coaching staff.

Still, it is the name alone that gives many of the players fuel. That, and perhaps their mysterious nature.

“UConn is built for March. This is where we belong. This is our identity,” Bouknight said. “This is our time of the year. We want to go out there and put on a show and make the fans proud.”



Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Thursday, 18 March 2021 21:36. Updated: Thursday, 18 March 2021 21:38.