Are the UConn Men a Legit Contender?

It’s been an interesting season for UConn men’s basketball. There were fairly high hopes coming into the season despite losing star James Bouknight to the NBA draft, because the roster was mostly returning with some young talent added in. At times, the team has lived up to the hype and have looked like a dangerous March team and then for stretches they have looked flat and ineffective. Add in a 3-week COVID pause in December and early January and a plethora of injuries, it’s challenging to figure out who the Huskies really are and what their ceiling is 20 games into the season.

After a tough loss to Creighton at home on Tuesday the coach Dan Hurley called “brutal”, the Huskies are 15-5 and ranked #17 in the country (for now). They are 6-3 in their triumphant return to the Big East and have a huge game against #12 Villanova on Friday. They have big wins against now #1 Auburn (the Tigers only loss) and now #24 Marquette and tough losses against West Virginia and Seton Hall (in OT). At times, they have looked offensively savvy and have been able to score in bunches and then they have had ridiculous ice-cold stretches offensively (i.e. the first half plus of the Creighton game). Defensively, the Huskies seem to have a hard-nosed, grinding approach that makes them tough to play against, but if they can’t score, does it matter?

One thing for certain is that Adama Sanogo has elevated his game this season and has had a big impact. When Sanogo is healthy and playing, UConn is 13-3 with the 3 losses to a tough Michigan State team, Seton Hall in OT, and the most recent Creighton loss. It seems the offense runs as Sanogo does, but despite making a big step forward this year, he’s still been somewhat inconsistent and when he struggles, it can impact the offense significantly. For example, against Creighton he went just 3-10 from the field and ended with 8pts and 9 rebounds and UConn failed to score 60 as a team. When Sanogo takes over inside, the other scoring options open up for the Huskies and they become significantly more balanced and powerful.

The injury bug has definitely impacted the team as well. Just 2 players, RJ Cole and Andre Jackson have started all 20 games and that has led to a lack of cohesive play at times, especially on the offensive end. The team tends to get a bit stagnant and too often are driving late in the shot clock to get off an off-balance layup or pull-up attempt. The ball tends to stick a bit, leading to low percentage shots and bad possessions. If the team can stay as healthy as they are now and not have any other season pauses like the long one in December and January, my hope is the chemistry will grow and the offense will become more fluid like we have seen in flashes during the year. If not, this team won’t make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

The bright spot for the Huskies right now is their defense. They rank at or near the top of the NCAA in many defensive categories and have allowed less than 65 points in 14 of their 20 games on the season including 3 of their last 4 (the only exception being the Georgetown blowout on January 25th). If they are to make a deep run into March, the defense will have to be the star of the show as with past deep runs. The cliche is “defense wins championships” and I think that can be true if the offense is potent enough to keep pace (which is my biggest concern). If you can’t get 60 pts of offense, the best defense probably won’t matter and an early exit is almost guaranteed.

The next 10 games will be the most telling for this year’s team. During that stretch, UConn plays 5 games against currently top-25 ranked teams and will have chances to measure themselves against other tournament-level competition. If they struggle, March will be a challenge and a deep run will be unlikely, but if they can show their strength and win most of those games, it will give the Huskies momentum into the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Now is the time for UConn to put it all together and live up to their high potential.

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