Ostrout: Akok on the attack again for the UConn men

Published on Monday, 13 December 2021 19:55

Journal Inquirer

NEWARK, N.J. - The proclamation “Akok Akok is back” has been made on multiple occasions by his coaches and teammates since the forward on the UConn men’s basketball team returned from the Achilles injury that he suffered nearly two years ago.

However, let the record reflect that Akok was officially back on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.

And it came when his team needed him the most.

With Adama Sanogo still sidelined by an abdominal injury and Isaiah Whaley battling foul trouble all afternoon against St. Bonaventure, the Huskies needed a big man. And Akok was huge.

The 6-foot-9 junior was a dunking, shot-blocking, jump-shooting, energetic machine that the Huskies hadn’t seen since his injury - perhaps ever.

Akok had 12 points, five rebounds, and three blocked shots in the No. 15 Huskies 74-64 win over St. Bonaventure Saturday at the Prudential Center.

“It felt amazing just to be out there again and doing it on both ends of the floor, making shots, 3-pointers, catching the alley-oop, blocking shots,” Akok said. “I had a lot of things to my game.”

Facing injuries to two of his best players, Sanogo and Tyrese Martin, UConn coach Dan Hurley has been pushing some of his other players to step up in their absence, Jalen Gaffney, Tyler Polley, and Akok specifically.

But a coach’s prodding can only do so much.

“You’re trying to instill as much confidence in them as you can in terms of building up their psyche and telling them things about how talented they are,” Hurley said. “But in the end, you get later in your career, you have to step up. You have to step up and produce.”

Akok played in seven games last season after rehabbing and returning to action. But he clearly wasn’t himself.

In the offseason, Hurley and many of the Huskies shouted Akok’s praises, trumpeting what they insisted would surely be a triumphant return.

But it was a rather slow start to the season for Akok. He has 12 points and seven rebounds against Coppin State Nov. 13 but struggled in the Huskies’ high major games. He went scoreless in UConn’s three games in the Bahamas, putting up zeroes against Auburn, Michigan State, and VCU.

When the Huskies returned to Connecticut, Hurley was admittedly hard on Akok in practice.

“Akok, he’s at that stage in his career. When you’re on the court, you have to step into a shot, you have to knock it down. You have to cut, run, you have to dunk. You can’t play extended minutes and not be productive,” Hurley said. “So I’ve been on his butt pretty good.”

And when Sanogo went down, the pressure on Akok only ratcheted up.

“It’s really just a next-man-up mentality. I just had to step it up. Coach has been me hard in practice, telling me to raise my intensity,” Akok said.

There is one skillset that Akok has added that could make a big difference as the Huskies move forward, long after Sanogo returns.

Before the season began, Hurley told his four-men, essentially Akok and Isaiah Whaley, they’d have to improve their 3-point accuracy this season if they wanted extended playing time.

Akok has apparently taken that to heart.

Entering this season, Akok had connected on only 13 of his 49 attempts from that range, a rather paltry 26.5 percent. But he’s been lights out from behind the arc so far in this campaign, going 8-for-13 (61.5 percent).

If Akok is back for good, and there’s no reason to doubt him at this point, it could be a major lift for the Huskies as they get ready for the rigors of Big East play.

Akok’s been through a lot, as have the Huskies, according to their coach. Those challenging times are starting to pay dividends, however.

“The time in the Bahamas, playing three really challenging games, dealing with some of the injury stuff, having to go to West Virginia and losing a game like that, it strengthens your resolve,” Hurley said. “Everything we’ve really dealt with really since Thanksgiving has toughened up the team.”

Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Monday, 13 December 2021 19:55. Updated: Monday, 13 December 2021 19:58.