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Bouknight is not program royalty just yet

There are some UConn loyalists, although it's hard not to conceive them in full Kool-Aid gulp, who will look at James Bouknight's final stat line Friday night — 14 points, eight rebounds — and think all is just swell with their luminary.

They are perhaps the same people, on and off social media, who insist on including Bouknight in the pantheon, right there with Ray and Rip and Kemba. Except that, well, on these kind of nights and in these kinds of games, Ray made off-balance shot to beat Georgetown, Kemba made the step-back against Pitt ... but James?

So once again with feeling: If you think James Bouknight belongs in the same sentence as the aforementioned ... if you think James Bouknight belongs among the top 10 picks in this year's NBA draft ... wax rapturously all you'd like. Free country. Except that many of us saw Ray, Rip and Kemba. As Lloyd Bentsen might say, "James, you're no Ray Allen."

No shame there. Bouknight is still a kid. Except that there's this notion that he's a lottery pick in a few months. James Bouknight has the talent to be a lottery pick, no question. But does he have the chops just yet?

He wasn't good enough Friday night in UConn's 59-56 loss to Creighton in the Big East tournament semifinals in the big, bad city. UConn needed him to be elite. Instead, he was pedestrian. We've seen others use the Garden stage as a springboard.

"Big East games are really, really physical. (Bouknight) gets fouled a lot," UConn coach Dan Hurley said after the game via Zoom. "It's the only way people can guard him. ... James Bouknight has done so much for UConn basketball. His decision to come here has changed the landscape. He doesn't have to explain his performance to anybody. What he's done for UConn basketball, and where this was a couple of years ago ... he'll make a couple of adjustments."

Hurley may be right. It's his program. He's around the kids every day. We're not. Perhaps he sees a Bouknight effect in recruiting. Or maybe he's just protecting his player here.

But from a distance, the rest of us see a player who needed to be carried off Thursday night for cramps. And to think it's the same floor onto which Willis Reed once limped back in the NBA finals. Bouknight, often in resting grimace face, is constantly on the deck looking as though Superfly Snuka just landed on him from the top rope. Not a great optic.

Makes you wonder what Jim Calhoun would have done with his best player often looking as though he needed the paramedics after every foul.

They needed Bouknight on this night because — despite the recent social media absurdity that had UConn all but comparing favorably to the '86 Celtics — this was a team that collectively had never been in this position. The Garden on Friday night in March is not anything like at Butler on a Tuesday in January.

"Huge credit to Creighton," Hurley said. "Experience in high leverage games like this in the postseason showed itself. ... Our guys are crushed. That was a tough one. A little bit of inexperience with the program and with the team in a postseason game like that showed up in some critical spots. ... As a program, we needed to experience the tension and intensity of a high leverage game in March. We haven't been in one of those in years."

Happily, there is the impending NCAA tournament, with a Connecticut team that clearly benefitted from Bouknight's absence in midseason. Adama Sanogo is going to be great. R.J. Cole is tougher than Ajax. Isaiah Whaley has never played better. The pieces fit nicely. But James Bouknight needs to become, what Reggie Jackson famously referred to, as "the straw that stirs the drink."

That's the only way UConn hangs around next week.

"We're playing really well. We lost a one possession game to a team that's a Sweet 16 level team," Hurley said. "They're a hair better than us. (Our) group is devastated. It was hard to get through the postgame in (the locker room) ... That pride feels like it's back. We have to clean a couple things up. We're excited about next week. I feel like we can play with anybody and potentially beat anybody."

They can. But if we're going to toss around James Bouknight's name with UConn royalty, he's got to start playing like it. The physicality of the NBA will be exponentially harder than this.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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