Jeff Jacobs: The mystery of James Bouknight an eerie tale for struggling UConn

Photo of Jeff Jacobs
UConn guard James Bouknight sits on the sideline as his teammates warm up before a game against Butler in Storrs on Jan. 26.

UConn guard James Bouknight sits on the sideline as his teammates warm up before a game against Butler in Storrs on Jan. 26.

David Butler II / USA TODAY / Contributed Photo

The James Bouknight Mystery continued Wednesday night in tiny Alumni Hall, where Providence College used to play many, many years ago and UConn’s problems very much are evident in the present tense.

The Huskies’ NCAA Tournament chances in this COVID season suddenly are cloudier after this disturbing 70-59 loss to the Friars, their fourth loss in five games.

UConn scored 25 points in the second half and Dan Hurley said his team needs to play tougher and better defense if it wants to win. On several occasions when down multiple points, the Huskies ran the shot clock down to near the end and still didn’t get good shots.

If you watched the game and came away with the notion that if only had the Huskies hit some of their open looks, they would have won, well, you weren’t watching carefully. Granted, David Duke and Nate Watson are really good players, but Providence was loose with the ball, made some poor decisions and too many times on offense it still was 7, 6, 5, 4 … think of something.

While Hurley, who wants to win 64-60 without Bouknight, clearly would have benefited from some tighter D, good grief … with their lack of aggression on offense, they’ll need to be tougher than the 1985 Chicago Bears on defense to stack any W’s without Bouknight.

There’s only so much blood you can get from a defensive stone.

The Bouknight Mystery is as disturbing as the Huskies’ loss. The riddle initially wrapped in a sling and now inside the enigma known as HIPAA regulations, is one that only James Bouknight, his family and his unknown-to-this-point surgeon evidently can unravel for the public.

On Saturday, after the loss to Seton Hall, Hurley said of his star player: “He’s at the point where he’s a game-time decision moving forward here. That kid’s a baller. He pushed hard to play (against Seton Hall). He put a lot of pressure on the medical staff.”

On Tuesday night, Hurley said, “He’ll be a game-time decision, I’d imagine, for the foreseeable future, if he’s not active. At this point, (it’s a matter of) his ability to get to a point where he’s feeling good enough to play.”

There would be changes to Hurley’s starting lineup at Alumni Hall, where the Friars are playing during COVID: Jalen Gaffney, rewarded for his 20-point effort against Seton Hall, and Tyler Polley started. R.J. Cole, sent a message that more was needed from him, and Brendan Adams did not.

Still, no Bouknight.

Postgame, four weeks and a day after Bouknight underwent elbow surgery, Hurley was asked how close he was to playing:

“Not close,” Hurley said. “James met with his doctor. I guess we’ll keep him as a game-time decision. He needs more time.”

From the moment Marquette’s Koby McEwen fell on Bouknight’s left elbow on Jan. 5, UConn fans seeking a full account would have needed Woodward and Bernstein. News flash: I am neither.

After his vague first postgame answer on Bouknight, I did ask Hurley whether he’d elaborate to help close the gap on what appear to be incongruous statements.

“I’ll do the best I can without painting myself into a corner again,” Hurley said. “Over the weekend he went live in practice and really was imploring our medical staff to allow him to play. He used a separate surgeon for the surgery. He met with James on Monday to get cleared for this game. He had discomfort still. The surgeon made a decision to shut him down longer.

“The UConn doctors, UConn training staff or team doc don’t have the authority to clear James. It’s obviously the surgeon he chose.”

At first the injury was termed a hyperextension. And a few days later, Hurley said he thought Bouknight could be back soon. Bouknight was called a game-time decision for the Jan. 9 and Jan. 11 games against Butler and DePaul, both victories. The next time we heard anything, UConn announced Jan. 13 that Bouknight had undergone elbow surgery on Jan. 12 and was out indefinitely.

There was no mention of where the surgery was done or who the surgeon was. The press release did say, “His progress will be closely monitored by the UConn athletic training staff and medical professionals. There is no timetable for his return.”

In the ensuing days, Hurley mentioned a four-to-six week return period and eventually that was specified to mean dating from his surgery. Later, Hurley also said the surgery addressed bone spurs.

Earlier on Wednesday, I asked Phil Chardis of UConn sports information whether he would be able to clarify Bouknight’s surgery. Bone spurs take time to calcify and surgery was performed only one week after the injury. Did a piece of a spur chip off? Was it actually loose bone and cartilage debris cleaned out? Did they shave down a spur to stop the pain? Anything to add to an explanation?

“I am not at liberty to discuss any part of a student-athlete’s medical procedures. We maybe try to give a general overall view, but beyond that is a privacy matter.”

HIPAA rules.

I couldn’t even tell you if it was an arthroscopy or more invasive surgery.

Postgame, after Hurley explained the surgery was done by “a separate surgeon,” I asked if UConn was allowed to give the name of the doctor?

“No, the family would have to do that,” was the school’s reply.

So we have a ticklish situation.

Is it as Hurley said, that Bouknight is pushing to play and his surgeon said no?

Hurley has made it clear: He considers his sophomore guard is one of the best players in the nation. After scoring 40 points against Creighton and demonstrating how far his game has advanced, most see Bouknight as a first-round selection in the NBA. Some see him as a lottery pick this year.

Is he getting outside advice to be careful with the injury?

Don’t know.

I asked Monday if I could interview Bouknight and was told by UConn, “We never have interviews with players who are out with injury.”

So maybe Bouknight plays at Xavier on Saturday and maybe he doesn’t.

Maybe he doesn’t play for two more weeks.

In the meantime, we’ll try to get Dr. Elbow’s name at least and more from the family, because it has gotten more than a little mysterious.

We do know without Bouknight the Huskies are 3-4, have dropped into a fifth-place tie with St. John’s in the Big East and need some more résumé-building wins before Selection Sunday. We know Hurley wants better defense. We know that Polley was 1-for-8 on 3s. We know that the Huskies finished 0-for-10 behind the arc in the second half. We know that Gaffney didn’t repeat his play against Seton Hall, Cole met Hurley’s challenge in the first half and not in the second. And we know Adama Sanogo, a freshman, may be UConn’s best healthy player today.

We also know that was an offensive death march in Providence. Can something be done?

“Our guards were brutal against three-quarter court pressure,” Hurley said. “It was taking us forever to get into something. It bothered us. We weren’t aggressive against it. We wanted to try to attack it more, throw the ball ahead and see if (we) could get something quick. We weren’t getting into anything until there was like 17 on the clock.

“We would love to have more dynamic things happening earlier in the possession and to be able to be more prolific. But I think right now you have a lot of guys who are struggling with their confidence. Obviously Bouknight disguised our deficiencies at that end of the court. We don’t have a lot of places to go with the ball offensively that we have a lot of confidence in. So we’ve got to try to win ugly with our defense and play low possessions on offense because we’re not going to win many games north of 70 with this group.”

Paul Simon once asked about a player who had bone spurs in his heel, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”

With your elbow spurs, where have you gone, James Bouknight? UConn Nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com @jeffjacobs123