UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley: ‘One of my top priorities is go get Isaiah Whaley going’

Photo of David Borges

INDIANAPOLIS — When Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley decided last spring to return to UConn for a fifth year, it felt like a huge coup for the Huskies.

Who needed the transfer portal when you’ve got the Big East’s reigning co-Defensive Player of the Year (Whaley) and Sixth Man Award winner (Polley) back in the fold?

Midway through their “super-senior” seasons, things haven’t always gone according to plan for both players. There have been ups and downs. Right now, as the 25th-ranked UConn men’s basketball team’s heads into its second game in three days with Butler on Thursday at Hinkle Fieldhouse (9 p.m., FS1), Polley is certainly on the upswing. Whaley, on the other hand, has been down a bit lately.

After knocking down a pair of 3-pointers and scoring 10 points in Tuesday’s win over Butler at XL Center, Polley is averaging 9.0 points and 2.3 rebounds per game — both up from a year ago. And while his 3-point shooting (34.9%) is down slightly from last season (35.5), that’s been on the uptick, as well: Over the past three games, Polley is 8-for-13 (61.5%) from distance.

“I’m just trying to do my best to help the team,” the 6-foot-9 forward said on Wednesday. “I’m in a great rhythm right now, I’ve just got to keep it going and go out and get some wins.”

“Tyler, right now, is giving us exactly what we hoped for,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “Recently, he’s been so much better defensively, and the shooting’s been an unbelievable weapon. If we get this version of Tyler, we’re very, very tough to beat.”

It’s been a tougher stretch lately for Whaley, culminating in one of his emptiest stat lines in the past three years on Tuesday, when he picked up three first-half fouls and finished without a single point or rebound in 10 minutes of action.

“Isaiah’s going through a tough stretch of games here,” Hurley said. “We didn’t start winning here until that guy got on the court. We need him to be his old ‘Wrench’ self here. (Thursday) is the perfect time.”

Whaley has had some health issues. He had a scary fainting spell after a game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament and got hit hard by COVID-19 a couple of weeks ago. He felt sick in UConn’s Dec. 21 win a Marquette (four points, six boards in 31 minutes) and was one of UConn’s final players to get out of COVID isolation prior to the Huskies’ return to action in a Jan. 8, overtime loss at Seton Hall.

“I didn’t have as much time to get back in shape,” Whaley said. “I was really winded that whole game.”

Whaley finished with five points and three boards in 23 minutes.

“He had a tough Christmas break, he’s been trying to get his legs under him,” Hurley said. “One of our top priorities right now is getting that guy back to who he was. Getting him back to his identity, getting that intensity level raised. It’s never gonna be a huge statistical thing for him. He’s a guy whose defensive intensity, just the way he plays, kind of in a ‘glue guy’ way, is what makes him so great that can’t really be measured by numbers. But one of my top priorities is to get him going.”

There’s another reason why Whaley’s numbers are down a bit. Other players have assumed more prominent offensive roles. Adama Sanogo has more than doubled his scoring production, and Andre Jackson has emerged as a real threat.

“I don’t have to have as big an offensive role as I’ve had to in the past, because everybody’s gotten a lot better on offense,” Whaley said. “I just have to stick to my role, play good defense.”

Hurley concurred: “We’ve got more guys that can score than we had last year, so scoring numbers are going to be down. Andre and Adama are stealing a lot of rebounds. I think the numbers, for a guy that plays the way Isaiah plays, it’s more of a feel and an eye test in being disruptive in the ball-screen game. Playing that elite-level defense.”

Whaley said he feels the best he’s felt all season right now. As Hurley pointed out, UConn didn’t become a winning program again until Isaiah Whaley started playing regularly. And in the Huskies’ biggest win of the season, a double-overtime win over current No. 2 Auburn in the Bahamas, Polley poured in a career-high 24 points while Whaley had seven rebounds and four blocks.

“In our biggest game of the year,” the coach said, “Tyler and Isaiah were tremendous.”


 Gavin Griffiths, an elite-shooting, 6-foot-7 Class of 2023 forward from Kingswood Oxford, attended Tuesday night’s game — along with several of his teammates — sitting behind the UConn bench.

 Senior walk-on Matt Garry has had pain in his surgically-repaired left knee and wasn’t in uniform for Tuesday’s game. Garry is a Southington product.