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What’s happening inside the UConn men’s basketball program as players come and go? ‘It’s not chaos’

STORRS — The scholarship players on hand for the UConn men’s basketball team — all six of them — gathered at midcourt following a workout Thursday afternoon at the Werth Champions Center, shook hands and began walking off the court together.

Coach Dan Hurley had already met the media, offering 15 minutes of calming words and reassurances as the program’s turnstiles continue to spin. Junior guard Andre Jackson and sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins, part of a dynamic core that needs reinforcements, also stopped for the cameras and microphones.

“A lot of guys left and I respect their decision,” said Jackson, set to be the vocal leader and one of the most prominent public faces for the 2022-23 Huskies. “But I feel like the strongest people survive, in a sense. It’s always good to know that everybody who’s here wants to be here. Everybody that is here is really locked in and committed to bringing UConn back and breaking that barrier.”

Joining Jackson and Hawkins in practice gear Thursday were junior center Adama Sanogojunior forward Richie Springs, sophomore forward Samson Johnson and freshman forward Alex Karaban. There were eight scholarship players, actually — if counting Taliek Brown, a national champion in 2004 and now the program’s director of player development, and Shabazz Napier, a national champion in 2014 and now a professional who is spending time this week at his alma mater .

The bitter end to the 2021-22 season, a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to New Mexico State, marked the end of the line for four seniors. In the time since, junior forward Akok Akok, junior guard Jalen Gaffney, sophomore guard Rahsool Diggins and freshman guard Corey Floyd Jr. have entered the transfer portal.

Two players are on the way, for sure — 7-foot-2 freshman center Donovan Clingan, who is finishing up at Bristol Central High, and 6-5 junior guard Tristen Newton, a portal gem who averaged 18 points, five assists and five rebounds last season for East Carolina.

“We don’t have a lot of players — as many as you need, probably, to start a season,” Hurley said. “But the ones we have are really good. We like the one we just got, a lot. We love the core we’re bringing back. There are not a lot of schools in the country that would want to trade their best four for our best four right now.”

UConn plans to add two more transfer guards capable of playing right away, and probably one or two other “developmental” players to fill out the roster. So the Huskies have a lot working for them, and a lot of work to do. The breathless stretch of team-building in the era of transfers might have peaked this week — when Floyd and Akok announced their departures and Newton announced his commitment — but it is not over.

“It’s not chaos,” Jackson said. “Most of us, honestly, already knew the guys that were going to leave. We had the feelings, we had the emotions. When you’re with guys every single day and you see what their daily routine is and you see how they go about things and how they feel, emotionally and mentally, being here, you can tell when it takes a lot out of a person. ”

In short, Gaffney hadn’t developed enough to earn the starting point guard role vacated by RJ Cole, Diggins hadn’t played a meaningful minute and wouldn’t, and Akok’s long and unlucky journey with the program hadn’t landed him in a position to be counted on.

Then there’s Floyd, who reclassified to join the Class of 2021 and spent what would have been his senior year of high school at UConn, a member of the program while taking a redshirt season. Having learned that UConn would dig into the portal for a starting point guard, he decided to transfer without ever playing a game.

“You see players that transfer from a place where they were expected to have a 10-15 minute off-the-bench role and they leave a place because that wasn’t enough,” Hurley said. “But then maybe you get recruited to a place and find yourself in that same role. The portal, it’s risky. It obviously hurts continuity, but it also, too — you might not always get exactly what you’re looking for, especially if you’re trying to play at this level because this is the top level of college basketball.”

In Newton, Hurley will be coaching a versatile scorer and defender, one who lit up the Huskies for 25 points as a freshman in 2019-20.

“With RJ’s departure and not feeling like there was a guy in the program that could take that mantle, we knew we had to get a big-time point guard,” Hurley said. “So Tristen, that was the first thing we wanted to knock out and the most important thing for our team. With Jordan and Andre and Adama as returners, you really have the thought process of building around that core. And you’ve got an Alex who can play (both forward positions), Samson more suited to (power forward), and Donovan coming in — these young, highly-regarded guys that we’re excited to see play. So when you’re in those conversations, I’m very, very — maybe honest to a fault in terms of the direction we wanted to go with the team to, again, continue to get better.”

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