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Can UConn overcome early season injuries?

MAUI, HI - NOVEMBER 21: UCONN head coach Kevin Ollie during the first round of the Maui Invitational game Oklahoma State vs UCONN on November 21, 2016 at the Lahaina Civic Center in Maui, HI. (Photo by Aric Becker/Icon Sportswire)
Aric Becker/Icon Sportswire

STORRS, Conn. – It’s no secret this has been a disappointing basketball season at the University of Connecticut – and the calendar has yet to turn from November to December.

Tuesday, as the Huskies prepared for their first game since returning from Maui last week, the challenge ahead was ramped up a bit. Quite a bit, to be exact.

After consultations with Connecticut physicians, UConn announced that two freshmen from the school’s highly-ranked recruiting class will miss the remainder of the season. Combined with the season-ending knee injury suffered by Terry Larrier on Nov. 21, coach Kevin Ollie now knows he must play the remainder of the season with just eight healthy scholarship players.

While it is a tough pill to swallow, the news wasn’t all that surprising. The medical situations were not promising for either guard Alterique Gilbert or forward Mamadou Diarra after UConn’s 79-69 loss to Oregon in Maui.

“We kind of expected it,” Ollie said Tuesday. “They made decisions and we fully support them. We’ve got one of the best medical staffs in the country and those guys will come back healthy and stronger next year.”

Those are difficult words to speak after just six games. The Huskies (2-4) play Boston University (4-2) Wednesday night in their first home game of the season at XL Center in Hartford, Conn.

And UConn will have the best bunch of unavailable players this side of No. 5 Duke, which has yet to put the frosh trio of Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden on the court this season.

Gilbert suffered a left shoulder dislocation Nov. 17 when the Huskies made a stop in California to play Loyola Marymount. He was diagnosed with a torn labrum and will have surgery in the next few weeks to repair the damage and tighten the muscles. According to UConn, recovery and rehabilitation could take up to six months.

Diarra has had knee problems since arriving at UConn in the summer. He was limited in workouts and has been diagnosed with significant patellofemoral syndrome which results in intense knee discomfort with the stress that exists in college basketball. Surgery is not planned at this time and Diarra will redshirt in 2016-17 with the goal of improving his knee health.

“We miss those guys and we wish they were out there with us,” sophomore guard Jalen Adams said. “But Coach told us, ‘Nobody is going to feel sorry for us.’ Every team is going to look at us as an opportunity; they’re going to get an easy ‘W’ vs. UConn. So we’ve got to step up. This is really a test to see what we’re truly made of.”

Adams leads the team in scoring (19.8) and assists (5.7). He is shooting 54.3 percent from the floor. After struggling a bit in UConn’s first three games, Adams scored 86 points in three games in the Maui Invitational and was named to the all-tournament team.

Against Chaminade, Adams and senior Rodney Purvis each played 39 minutes in a 93-82 victory. Purvis logged 40 minutes against Oregon with Adams on the floor for 36.

They were joined in UConn’s starting lineup by freshman forward Vance Jackson, senior forward Kentan Facey and senior center Amida Brimah.

Ollie had hoped to use a two-point guard offense this season with Adams and Gilbert. Now Adams will be the primary point guard with Purvis and freshman Christian Vital providing help on the ball and off.

Gilbert had dislocated the same shoulder twice before, as a sophomore in high school and again last April at the Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn. He had surgery in May, and joined team workouts in August, but the shoulder popped out of joint when he was involved in a midcourt collision against Loyola Marymount.

Ollie said this is not a time for the drawing board and different plans.

“We’re just going to do what we do and do it a little better,” Ollie said. “You just make adjustments in the game. Everybody’s got to be ready. We’ve got eight guys now. We’ve got enough in here to get it done.”

Steven Enoch and Juwan Durham will be asked to play bigger roles inside and help Brimah on the boards. But Durham is an unknown as a freshman. Over the past two high school seasons, Durham suffered a torn right ACL as a junior and a torn ACL in his left knee as a senior. His minutes will be monitored closely.

That’s the type of specific that makes this challenge different for Ollie. But anyone who has followed Ollie as a UConn player, a veteran in the NBA, and as a coach, understands he never backs down from a challenge.

“It’s a tough time,” Ollie said. “You go through the emotions where you think you’re letting your team down because you can’t play. But injuries are part of basketball. And life doesn’t give you a warning shot. You’re just going to get better from it.

“We’re going to get those guys back after successful surgeries and they’re going to be a part of a great team when they come back next year, and they’re going to be here in spirit also.”

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