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32 days ‘til opening day: Hartford needs frontcourt bounce backs in pivotal year

NCAA Basketball: Hartford at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 10 couldn’t come soon enough.

As we slide through the final weeks before college basketball returns, we’ll look at one storyline about the upcoming season that lines up with the number of days until opening day. Keep coming back to see if we have the creativity and dedication to pull this off. No promises.

It’s Oct. 9 and we’re just 32 days from opening day.

On America East day, the countdown takes a look at Hartford, a program that has a 32-year history with the league. The Hawks joined the AE’s predecessor, the Eastern College Athletic Conference-North, in 1985, a year after making the jump to Div. I.

Since then Hartford has had some respectable teams, but never finished better than tied for second in the regular season. Recent history has been especially frustrating, with back-to-back 4-12 league seasons under John Gallagher.

The eighth-year head coach has had moments, most notably taking the program to its first-ever Div. I postseason in the 2013 CIT. But the longtime head man is entering the final year of his contract, has an 87-134 overall record and an athletic director that didn’t hire him.

No matter how good a person he is, harsh reality says he’s facing a pivotal season.

With the graduation of leading scorer Jalen Ross (19.9 PPG), Gallagher will be relying on an intriguing frontcourt mix to complement junior wing Jason Dunne (13.7 PPG). Two once-promising players will be trying to bounce back from set-back seasons.

Redshirt junior John Carroll had his 2015-16 season cut short with a knee injury, but in the five games he did play, he produced like a top-line AE big man (11.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG). He wasn’t able to carry that forward last season, falling back to 6.4 points and 4.4 rebound per game over 23 contests. His advanced metrics (block rate, rebounding rates) didn’t dip significantly, suggesting the injury didn’t sap his athleticism.

If there’s a potential X-factor for Carroll, other than being a year further removed from major injury, it’s that the Dublin-native spent the summer playing and training with the Irish national team. This stint included a 27-point outing in a game against Luxembourg. If anything, Gallagher has to hope the extra work and success can propel Carroll to a bounce back year.

Fellow forward George Blagojevic is also looking for a rebound. As a freshman, Blagojevic stepped into the void left by Carroll’s injury, and had a promising season (9.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG). But his numbers dipped across the board last year, and he struggled shooting the ball, especially from three (2-for-36, 0.56%).

If Blagojevic and Carroll can play to the level they’ve shown they’re capable, they’ll form a formidable frontcourt alongside senior center Hassan Attia, arguably the best rim protector in the AE. The Hawks also have redshirt freshman Nikola Colovic coming of an injury-riddled season, and Gallagher has spoken highly of him in the past.

Colovic is 6-feet-10 too, and he's coming in with much experience. He played the last two years at Beovuk 72, a Serbian professional basketball club, and won MVP honors for the Serbian Under-19 League, averaging 25.5 points and 16.5 rebounds last season. He was slated to play for the Serbian National Team at the World Championships in 2015 but was injured.

"I think eventually he's a first-team all-league guy," Gallagher said of Colovic.

Hartford’s frontcourt has potential, but can it come together as Gallagher is likely coaching for his job? That’ll be the question of the Hawks’ 2017-18 season.