skip navigation

N.J. native R.J. Cole looking to lead UConn upon return to Big East

By Adam Zagoria | For NJ Advance Media, 03/23/20, 11:15PM EDT

Share

R.J. Cole is among a very select group of basketball players to have been coached by both Bob Hurley Sr. and Dan Hurley.

The 6-foot Linden resident was a three-year varsity starter for the elder Hurley at St. Anthony’s in Jersey City, where he carried a 4.0 GPA and was salutatorian of his graduating class in 2017.

 

After two seasons at Howard University in Washington, D.C., he transferred to UConn, where he sat out last season as a transfer student but practiced under Huskies coach Dan Hurley.

“They’re definitely similar, a lot of things they say to their players are definitely one in the same so it’s kind of ironic,” Cole, 20, told NJ Advance Media by phone on Thursday. “I felt like I was in high school all over again because I was hearing the same things.”

Anything in particular?

“Definitely, the main word ‘brutal,’ I’ve heard that for a long time now,” he added. “Over three years of high school and just this one year being here playing for coach Hurley.”

Cole is the second player to compete for both Hurleys, following Tarin Smith, an Ocean Township native who was a grad transfer at UConn in 2018-19. But Cole will be the first in the group to play for UConn in the Big East Conference. The Huskies are set to return to the league for the 2020-21 season, when the league will expand to 11 men’s and women’s basketball teams.

 

Cole is looking forward to having his family and friends see him play games not only at UConn, but at Seton Hall and St. John’s as well.

“It’s definitely going to help a lot because the Big East is more of a Northeast regional type of thing, so I get to go back and play in D.C., where I went to Howard and then in Jersey and New York,” Cole said. “It’s probably going to be one of the most fun things for myself, my teammates and my family and friends that they can come and see us play.”

Cole, who was a member of St. Anthony’s unbeaten Tournament of Champions title team in 2016, figures to play a major role for UConn, especially after Hurley announced Thursday that junior guard Alterique Gilbert will transfer.

 

“Al was a helluva player so I think it’s going to leave a big role to fill,” Cole said, “but I think I can do that.”

As a sophomore at Howard, Cole appeared in all 34 games, starting 33, and averaging 21.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.8 steals, with a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio en route to being named the MEAC Player of the Year after leading the conference in scoring for a second straight season. As a true freshman, he started all 33 games, averaging 23.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.7 steals per game.

After Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry resigned in March 2019, Cole considered several schools, including Seton Hall, before picking UConn last May.

 

“R.J. is a tremendous offensive player,” Hurley, the former Seton Hall guard and onetime Rutgers assistant coach, said Thursday. “I compare him to a quarterback who gets the ball out on time. He just sees the floor, is a tremendous pick-and-roll, ball-screen player. Tremendous court vision and just very, very efficient offensive player that I think has the ability to make everyone around him better because of the way that he sees the floor, just how efficient he is in terms of how he uses his dribble.

“He’s really easy to play with. He can score the ball and obviously he can be a play-maker. Just like a lot of guys, he’s going to have to step up at the defensive end of the court. But he played for Bob Hurley Sr., so that shouldn’t be that big of an adjustment once the lights come on.”

UConn finished 19-12, 10-8 in their final year in the American Athletic Conference, and Hurley is optimistic about the team he brings into the Big East.

 

Hurley referred to a “strong core of guys” including freshmen James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney, redshirt freshman Akok Akok, sophomore Brendan Adams and junior bigs Josh Carlton, Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley. Akok ruptured his left Achilles in February and is targeting a mid-season return, while Polley tore his ACL in January and should be back for the season-opener, Hurley said.

“I can’t give you a timeline on Akok because of the injury but I know he has his eyes set on his first game back being a Big East game [and that] is driving and pushing him in his rehab,” Hurley said of the 6-9 big man. “We certainly won’t let either guy [Akok or Polley] on the court until they’re 100 percent and we’re especially going to be careful with Akok because it’s an Achilles.”

Hurley described Cole as being part of an “infusion of talent” joining the program for its return to the Big East that also includes 6-9 freshman forward Richie Springs of Brooklyn and incoming recruits Andre Jackson, a 6-6 guard from Albany, N.Y., and Javonte Brown-Ferguson, a 7-1 center from Canada.

 

Hurley said the program may still add another player or two via the transfer route, but pointed out that it’s difficult to recruit during the coronavirus pandemic because players can’t visit campus.

“You’re able to make calls and we’re just going to have to be a little bit creative in the way that we present information to potential recruits without the ability to get them on campus and without the ability to meet with them for the foreseeable future,” he said. “There’s no blueprint for this.”

As for Cole, he left campus last Friday due to the coronavirus and didn’t make the trip with his UConn teammates to Texas for the American Athletic Conference tournament. He’s been keeping busy by running, working out and watching a lot of Marvel movies.

Mostly, he’s looking forward to next season.

“I can’t wait to get back on the floor with my teammates,” he said, “especially with the guys that are coming in and the guys that are returning. I feel like we can make some noise in the Big East.”