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With sophomores stepping up, newcomers adapting, UConn men's basketball looking forward to new year

Joe Arruda, Hartford Courant on

Published in Basketball

HARTFORD, Conn. — Dan Hurley spoke to his underclassmen through the media on several occasions during the 2023-24 national championship season, getting the re-recruitment process started before any opportunity in the portal could enter their minds. His staff reached out to families and met with the players during the season, letting them know that they’re part of future plans, that “great players are one-uniform guys.”

That rising sophomore class — Jayden Ross, Solomon Ball, Jaylin Stewart and Youssouf Singare — didn’t need much of a re-recruitment.

“I can’t see myself at any other school, to be honest. It wasn’t really necessarily a decision to come back, it was just a decision to stay committed to the process and everything that Hurley’s about,” said Ball, who started a few games with Stephon Castle injured early in the season but then saw his usage decline. “Him coming back was really big for us and the connection we have already with the team has been great. It feels like the locker room’s been together for like a year or two already. That’s what I’ve really loved so far.”

“I don’t think I’ve really ever had any swaying feelings of wanting to leave or anything like that,” Ross said Thursday morning, as he, Stewart, Ross and Hassan Diarra served coffee at Dunkin’ in East Hartford for National Iced Coffee Day. “We stick to the process and trust the coaches every day, then we’re gonna end up being where we want to be.”

The staff had to be conscious again this offseason. Facing the likelihood, now reality, of losing four starters to graduation and the NBA and having to replace more than 60% of the team’s scoring in order to contend again.

Now a destination spot, a place to come, develop and win, UConn had to be careful not to add too many transfers and limit opportunities for those who decided to stay.

The Huskies added ex-Michigan big man Tarris Reed Jr. swiftly, not long after center Donovan Clingan, a potential top-three pick in this week’s draft, announced his decision to declare. Liam McNeeley joined Ahmad Nowell and Isaiah Abraham in the already promising freshman class as one of the program’s highest-ranked recruits and, days later, Aidan Mahaney, an experienced and versatile guard from Saint Mary’s, jumped on board.

“Liam’s been doing really well, pretty much all of the freshmen have been doing well,” Ball said. “Even Aidan and Tarris – everyone’s been doing well, to be honest.”

The sophomores will be expected to step up and fill the remaining needs.

“I think it’s going great,” said Ross, after more than a week of summer workouts. “Both the freshmen and transfers have done a good job of coming in and really buying into the culture pretty quick. One thing our coaching staff is really good with is bringing in players that will fit our culture personality-wise as well as team-wise on the court. They buy-in pretty quick, they understand that this is a premiere program and the quicker the buy-in, the better.”

“The new players are adapting pretty quick, quicker than I did last year so that’s a good thing,” added Stewart, who had a delayed move-in last summer because of his late high school graduation in Seattle.

 

Stewart got comfortable as the season went on, found his role and was a critical piece down the stretch; most notable was his performance in the Big East Tournament championship game, the barrage of 3-pointers that helped the Huskies pull away and beat Marquette. He finished the year averaging 2.5 points in 8.9 minutes per game, shooting 47.4% from the field.

“The main thing for me (this summer) is trying to be on the ball a little more, getting my handle up. My strength is the biggest thing I’m trying to work on, being able to go through contact and being a better defender,” he said.

Ball is also working on his handle to be on the ball more and focusing on the defensive side — “being able to lock the best players down,” he said.

It’s more of the same for Ross, who is developing his body and working on his jump shot, in addition to raising his level on defense. UConn is losing one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation in Castle and one of the most impactful players on the interior in Clingan.

“It’s kind of like going through the process all over again,” Ball said. “Hurley sets the standard and everyone’s just willing to follow. It’s just helping the new guys and the transfers get acclimated and get used to what we’ve already gone through this past year.”

The chemistry-building was accelerated with the abrupt announcement of Hurley’s interest in the Los Angeles Lakers’ head coaching job about a week after the team’s summer workouts began. As he pondered the opportunity, there were multiple players-only meetings that kept the team together.

“It was kind of a crazy situation to be in, I’ve never been in the middle of a situation like that where the whole world is watching. You have to just keep your head down, keep going and just wait for the results. I think it was a nerve-wracking experience for everybody, but I feel like we all kind of knew where Coach’s heart was at from the beginning. For me it was just like, keep working and don’t worry about all of the outside noise,” Stewart said.

“It definitely brought us closer, and it shows his true confidence in us as a team,” said Ball. “It really just makes you want to play for him even more.”

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