UConn men’s much-anticipated First Night scrimmage grounded by faulty basket

Photo of David Borges

STORRS — At one point during practice on Friday afternoon, UConn coach Dan Hurley found himself shouting at his team.

At the same time, practically right next door, Marine One was lifting President Joe Biden off campus after a short visit.

“I don’t know what was louder — the noise from the helicopter or me getting on somebody about lack of screening,” Hurley said.

It turned out to be the only yelling Hurley got to do on Friday. A technical problem with one of Gampel Pavilion’s baskets, which wasn’t able to be raised, prevented both the men’s team or women’s team from playing respective fullcourt scrimmages, as originally planned, during UConn’s First Night festivities.

Apparently, the stanchions on the basket were raised successfully multiple times prior to the event. But when the lights went on and a pair of scrimmages — first by the women’s team, then the men’s — were slated to unfold, the basket simply wouldn’t lift.

Instead, the men engaged in a somewhat sloppy slam-dunk contest in which walk-on Matt Garry was one of the stars. The women’s team played one brief, 4-on-4, halfcourt scrimmage. The men elected not to play one, and just like that, the event was over.

While some 8,000 student-fans packed Gampel and things got loud during introductions, they were denied a chance to see the 2021-22 men’s team in live action for the first time since March, 2020.

“We regret what happened and hope the students in attendance still had a good time,” a UConn spokesman said.

Prior to the event, Hurley gave a synopsis of his team through this point in the preseason. He said he’s looking for players with a “super-skill” that can get them into the starting lineup.

“Who has that one thing that they do so well that it’s gonna put them out there with the first group?,” Hurley asked, rhetorically. “That first guard off the bench is kind of big, too, because you’re gonna play starter’s minutes — 26, 27 minutes a game. For me, it’s like, ‘Is your defense so elite that we need to start the game with you out there? Is your shooting so elite that that’s what’s gonna win you the job to start the game?’ If you’re Jalen Gaffney, is your creativity and taking pressure off of R.J. (Cole) so elite with the ball?’”

Hurley noted that there is intense competition for minutes at the guard position — particularly the wing. Senior Tyrese Martin has been the most consistent in pratice. Freshman Jordan Hawkins boasts athleticism, good size and is a “beautiful shooter on the move, not just catch-and-shoot,” who has had some “wow” shooting days in practice and whose defensive liabilities could be glossed over a bit if his other skills continue to shine.

Hurley noted that sophomore Andre Jackson has been shooting over 50-percent on 3-pointers in practice — albeit on limited attempts.

“We need him to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the country this year,” Hurley added.

As for the vaunted frontcourt, freshman Samson Johnson is “graceful, fluid” on the floor.

“I think people will be very impressed, the first time they see him in person, just how graceful he is for a guy who’s 6-10,” Hurley noted.

Akok Akok, hoping to be 100-percent back from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in February, 2020, is doing well, though Hurley seemed to hint that the 6-foot-9 junior needed to start shooting better from distance.

The Huskies were split into two teams for the scheduled scrimmage: a Blue Team of Akok, Jackson, Garry, Gaffney, Isaiah Whaley and Richie Springs, and a White Team of Martin, Hawkins, Johnson, R.J. Cole, Adama Sanogo and Andrew Hurley.

Then, the basket on one end of the floor never got off the ground. And neither did the Huskies’ much-anticipated scrimmage.

RIM RATTLINGS

 Grad forward Tyler Polley (ankle) and freshman point guard Rahsool Diggins (knee) sat out the festivities. Polley could be back in about a week, according to Hurley. Diggins, who’s been out of action “for a little bit now” may be out for another couple of weeks.

 Hurley mentioned that there may be an open practice some time over the next couple of weeks for season ticket-holders and/or students to attend.

 According to The Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, UConn will play a “secret scrimmage” on Oct. 23 at home against Harvard. Hurley has played such closed-door scrimmages against the Crimson several times, including twice with UConn and a few times while at Rhode Island, as well.

The Huskies are expected to have one other scrimmage before their regular season begins on Nov. 9 against Central Connecticut State.

Hurley prefers the closed-door scrimmages against Division I opponents over public exhibition games against D-II foes. He told Hearst Connecticut Media on the UConn Report podcast earlier this week that he typically plays a very vanilla offense, since tapes of the scrimmages often get out to coaches of future opponents. He noted that his record in such scrimmages is “probably 4-12,” in part for that reason.

“The other (coach) may be playing to win so they can leak scores, win favor in a game that means absolutely nothing,” Hurley noted. “It’s not a Quad 1 win, nor is it a Quad 1 loss.”

Of course, the coach also noted that he was once essentially ejected from a closed-door scrimmage while in his first season at URI.

“We’re getting a bad whistle in a closed scrimmage, at home, against a MAC team, so I completely flipped out on the officials that were assigned,” Hurley recalled.

He noted that former UConn player John Gwynn was one of the officials, who tried to play “peace-keeper” between Hurley and another ref. Then, he and Gwynn started to argue.

“They threw me out at that point,” Hurley recalled. “I refused to leave, because it was my home scrimmage. There were no security to remove me, because it wasn’t a (real) game. It was just a threat they made to throw me out. There was no one there to escort me out, so eventually we resumed.”

david.borges@hearstmediact.com