Highly-touted “Top 5” freshman class arrives on campus at UConn

Durham (far left) and Gilbert (center) should both be ready for full contact when practice begins in October.

(WTNH)–They call themselves the “Top 5,” and if the way they get along is any indication of how they’ll play on the court, this could end up being a special group at UConn.

The Huskies’ highly-touted freshman class–ranked in the top 5 in the nation by some outlets– has arrived in Storrs, and on Thursday, they introduced themselves to the media at the Werth Champions Center on campus.

Point guard Alterique Gilbert, shooting guard Christian Vital, forward Vance Jackson and big men Juwan Durham and Mamadou Diarra were each ranked in ESPN’s Top 100. Together, they make up one of the best recruiting classes in Huskies history.

So of course, they needed a nickname.

“We call ourselves Top 5,” said Durham, and the five players repeated that phrase, from the Drake song “Grammys,” to each other throughout the day. “We couldn’t use Fab Five, because that’s already taken.”

The group was laughing and joking around throughout the media session on Thursday, and it’s clear they’ve already forged a bond.

“We’re brothers,” said Vital, a 6-0 guard from Queens Village, N.Y. “This group of guys, and the people around this program, it’s a real family atmosphere. Everyone cares about each other and wants each other to achieve their goals.”

Point guard Alterique Gilbert says his game is like a mix of Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Point guard Alterique Gilbert says he’ll bring a little bit of Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson to his game next season. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Each said that their relationship with Kevin Ollie was a deciding factor in their commitments.

“That was the hugest thing,” Vital said of his.

Gilbert, a McDonald’s All-American from Atlanta, said Ollie has a unique way of connecting with high school players.

“Him just being the person that he is, the background that he comes from, he’s been to where we want to be, as far as the NBA goes, and he’s fought through adversity to get there,” Gilbert said.

The 6-2 Gilbert also said he’s eager to join the list of great guards that have passed through Connecticut.

“Seeing the great guards that have come here, Kemba, Shabazz, Ryan Boatright, Jerome Dyson, the list continues,” he said. “I’m just looking to come in and learn right away.”

Durham, from Tampa, Fla., said he chose UConn in part because he liked the area, and because “there’s not much to do except play basketball and go to class.”

“I grew up in the city, a lot of big buildings, interstates and stuff like that,” he said. “Out here, there’s nothing but giant bugs. I saw an ant that was probably the size of my big toe. I’ve never seen that before.”

Shooting guard Christian Vital thinks he and Gilbert will have a nice chemistry in the backcourt. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Shooting guard Christian Vital thinks he and Gilbert will have a nice chemistry in the backcourt. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Gilbert agreed that the wildlife is out of control.

“I’ve seen quite a few animals I’ve never seen before like, skunks, beavers, chipmunks. There’s a lot of deer. They’re like people, they’re everywhere.”

Vance Jackson, a sharpshooting 6-8 forward from Napa, California, said the New England weather could end up being the biggest adjustment for him. “I haven’t really felt the cold yet,” he said.

Jackson played with former Husky Daniel Hamilton, a recent draft pick of the Oklahoma City Thunder, for years growing up. The two were teammates at Don Bosco High School in Los Angeles.

“Seeing him thrive kind of motivated me, and I just wanted to see where I fit in,” Jackson said. “Coach Ollie, with his system, I feel like I can make an impact right away.”

So, how does he see his role with this team?

“They recruited me to shoot,” Jackson said. “Knock down jumpers, score the ball, rebound and defend. That’s what I came to do.”

Mamadou Diarra, a 6-8 forward from Queens, played at Putnam Science Academy last season. He was the first of the class to commit, and said he likes the way the class has come together.

“I just feel like we all compliment each other well,” he said.

From what we saw Thursday, that statement applies both on and off the court.

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