Ex-UConn men's basketball guard Jalen Gaffney finds success with surprising Florida Atlantic

Photo of David Borges

Dusty May had just got through a long line at the rental-car desk at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport a couple of years ago and was heading to pick up his car when he saw the familiar face of A.D. Gaffney. 

Or at least part of the familiar face. 

“I didn’t even recognize him, because everyone had masks on,” May recalled. “We hugged, embraced. I hadn’t seen him in a few years.” 

May knew Gaffney through the AAU basketball circuit, as well as from recruiting Gaffney’s son, Jalen, while May was an assistant coach at Florida. May ultimately left to take over the head coaching reins at Florida Atlantic University; Jalen ultimately committed to the UConn men’s basketball team. 

Fast forward a couple of years later and Jalen Gaffney and Dusty May are playing key roles in one college basketball’s best stories of the season. 

Gaffney, who transferred this past spring after three unspectacular seasons at UConn, is playing a key role for Florida Atlantic, which is 19-1 overall and boasts an 18-game winning streak, second-longest current streak in the nation. That included a win at Florida on Nov. 14 that marked the first time they had ever defeated the Gators in any venue. 

Gaffney is averaging 5.4 points per game and shooting 37 percent from 3-point range while starting 16 of the Owls’ 20 games. But his contributions extend beyond the numbers. The 6-foot-3 guard has provided versatility defensively, guarding both bigger and smaller players, while injecting the Owls with the competitiveness instilled in him at UConn. 

“He’s done a lot of things to help our programs, in a number of ways,” May said. “First and foremost is unselfishness and basketball IQ, those two things wrapped up into one.” 

In fact, Gaffney still shares a couple of things in common with his former Husky teammates this season: beating Florida on the road (UConn scored 21-point win in Gainesville on Dec. 7), and, at least as of Sunday evening, a spot in the AP Top 25 poll. The Owls’ historic start had them ranked for the first time ever this week, at No. 24. They’re the first Conference USA team to be ranked since 2018. 

“Obviously, winning this many games in a row, you don’t ever anticipate this,” said May, who’s in his fourth season at FAU’s helm, “just because it’s so hard to win every single night. But we did know that we had a very good team that was really connected, tight-knit, really hard-working. We knew we had all the intangibles. If we could tangibly play well, make shots, make timely free throws, we knew this was possible.” 

Indeed, FAU had all its guards returning from a team that went 11-7 in league play and made the CBI tournament, as well as another who had missed all of last season after playing major minutes the year before.  

With a “glut of guards,” May wasn’t exactly delving into the transfer portal looking for backcourt help. But when he saw Gaffney had entered the portal, he couldn’t resist.  

“I figured I’d throw our name in a hat,’” May recalled. “I assumed he’d go back to the Power Five level.” 

Indeed, Georgia and Xavier were heavily recruiting Gaffney. But after about a week, May got word that Gaffney was interested in FAU. 

“We were very, very honest with Jalen and the family that we had our entire team coming back,” May recalled. “We told them, ‘There’s no guarantees on anything. If you want to be part of it, we’d love to have you. You can definitely help us, we can definitely help you. It has to be under the right situation.’” 

Looking for a fresh start, Gaffney, who was unavailable to talk for this story, chose FAU. So far, so good. 

“He’s surpassed all expectations as far as how good of a teammate he is,” May continued. “Even his unselfishness and his basketball IQ, his passing, all those things are contagious with our players. Some things we didn’t do well are his strengths. He’s helped every guard on our roster improve, and he’s made our big guys look even better, because he knows how to get them the ball.” 

Although it never quite worked out in three years in Storrs for Gaffney, his UConn pedigree still shines through, according to May. 

“The way they play, the way they practice, the way they compete, was also very appealing,” the coach noted. “He had been in that competitive environment, in big moments. We felt like we had a chance to play in the spotlight this year, and we thought he would help us in that area, too, because of his experience at UConn.” 

The Owls have already succeeded in the spotlight this season, and could still have more opportunities in the coming months. Jalen Gaffney could be a big part of it all. 

Who could have predicted that when May bumped into A.D. Gaffney at a crowded rental-car line in Atlanta a couple of years ago? 

“It was kind of a random encounter,” May recalled. “It was pretty cool, when you look back in hindsight, his son ended up playing for me.” 

This week's AP Top 25 ballot

  1. Purdue
  2. Alabama
  3. Kansas State
  4. Tennessee
  5. Kansas
  6. Arizona
  7. UCLA
  8. Virginia
  9. Texas
  10. Houston
  11. Gonzaga
  12. Xavier
  13. Miami
  14. TCU
  15. Baylor
  16. Iowa State
  17. New Mexico
  18. Auburn
  19. Marquette
  20. Clemson
  21. San Diego State
  22. Providence
  23. UConn
  24. Charleston
  25. Florida Atlantic

david.borges@hearstmediact.com @DaveBorges