As the Big East Tournament begins, it’s a good time to take a look into the future. The UConn Men’s Basketball team enters the tournament at their home-away-from-home, Madison Square Garden, winning 6 of their last 7 games and as the #3 seed in the league. By all accounts, they had a very strong regular season, putting together a 22-8 record with a 13-6 record in the Big East. There were a number of close games they could have won, but ultimately they are where they want to be: playing their best basketball with a first round bye in the Big East Tournament. They have two All-Big East First Team players on their roster (R.J. Cole and Adama Sanogo), a member of the All-Big East Freshman team (Jordan Hawkins), and Sanogo is one of 5 finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award. All of that is great and fun to write about, but the bigger question is whether they are a contender to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Let’s take a look at the seeding first. As it stands today, most believe UConn is a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were creeping up into the #4 line before a tough loss to Creighton on March 2nd and now have some work to do if they want to improve their seed. The good news? They have a chance to beat some quad 1 teams in the Big East Tournament and perhaps move up. Looking at their potential schedule, UConn will face the winner of Seton Hall and Georgetown in their first game, two teams they can handle. They lost to Seton Hall earlier this year, but beat them on February 16th. If they can get past either one of those teams, then they face a likely matchup with Villanova in the Semifinals. The Wildcats are the #8 team in the country and a 2nd win against them this year would certainly turn some heads. Assuming the higher seeds win, a victory over #8 Villanova would give UConn a matchup with #11 Providence. While it’s a tough ask to beat Nova and Providence on back-to-back nights, if they were to do so and win the Big East Tournament title, a #4 or even #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament is not out of the question.
While I would love to say the seeding doesn’t matter, it does. The difference between a #5 and a #4 seed can be significant in terms of odds of making a deep run. According to Betfirm.com in March of 2021 the odds of a #5 seed reaching the Sweet 16 was 33.6% while the #4 seed had a 47.1% chance to make the 2nd weekend of the tournament. When it comes to the Elite 8, there is a 8.6% higher likelihood of moving on as a #4 seed vs a #5 seed. If UConn wants to put themselves in the best position to make a deep run, they definitely need to win their first Big East Tournament game and really need a win over #8 Villanova to make their case. Obviously seeding is not the only factor in success, but it can help push a team along in the earlier rounds.
Looking at the team overall, they have the ability to matchup with most teams in the country. Their interior size and skill puts them in the top tier in the country, assuming Sanogo can stay out of foul trouble and off the bench. Isaiah Whaley is a nice compliment with his rebounding ability and veteran leadership and when on the floor with Sanogo, they can stifle inside shooting. UConn has length and athleticism in Andre Jackson and a jack-of-all-trades in Tyrese Martin. They have a solid 3pt shooting threat in Tyler Polley and are of course led by the Cole-blooded killer, R.J. Cole, who is the heart and soul of this team and can force the action when things are stagnant. Hopefully Jordan Hawkins is out of concussion protocol and can add some shooting depth to the team in stretches. All of that sounds nice and is a recipe for success, but that hasn’t always been the case this season and there are a lot of concerns heading into the postseason.
My two biggest concerns are keeping Sanogo on the floor and engaged and overall offensive stagnation. When Sanogo gets established early and gets angry, it’s damn-near impossible to stop him. However, he has a tendency to stop himself with early fouls and forcing the issue too often. If he gets into a rut, he can significantly slow down the UConn offense and cause prolonged cold streaks. Numerous times this season the Huskies have missed a few shots and began forcing the ball. The 2 minute cold streak turns into a 4 minute streak and snowballs to detrimental effect. If they can limit and contain those cold streaks, they are a strong offensive team, but if they get into a 5+ minute cold streak in the NCAA Tournament, they’ll likely be taking the next flight back. The UConn win against Villanova on February 22nd was a great example of how good this team can be. They missed a few shots, got down a bit in the first half after Dan Hurley was ejected, but were able to regroup, make smart decisions and take smart shots, and reverse their mini slump without letting it snowball. They got big shots at the end when they needed them and were able to grind out a W. If they are able to do that in the tournament, look out.
The other factor that I think really helps UConn is their Big East schedule. Every night, whether they were playing the #10 team in the conference or the #1 team, they were hard fought battles. Being back in the Big East has helped UConn get used to close, physical games and play a style that can really work against mid-majors and teams that aren’t used to the banging. The nightly challenge has led to some tough losses, but ultimately has taught UConn how to play in close games and how to fight until the final whistle. Having experience winning close games will definitely benefit them if they get into one in the NCAA Tournament (which is almost a guarantee).
Ultimately, UConn controls their own destiny. Yes, it’s cliché, but it applies to this team maybe even more than others in the past. If the Huskies play their best basketball, there are very few teams in the country that have a chance to beat them. If they play just a B-level basketball, they aren’t going to be dancing very long. They need a full team effort every night and can’t just rely on R.J. Cole to bail them out at the end, although his ability to do so could come in handy. I think this is a 2nd weekend team, but after that it’s anyone’s guess. The next few games in the Big East Tournament will tell us more about where the team is mentally heading into Selection Sunday, but overall I have a good feeling about the chances at a deep run this year.