42 Wins and Counting: UConn Baseball is Poised for a College World Series Run Behind Coach Jim Penders

Year after year, Coach Jim Penders has been defying the odds and making the oft-ignored UConn Baseball program a constant threat in the landscape of NCAA College Baseball. If you haven’t heard that UConn Baseball is having another impressive season and is on pace to come close to their highest win total in program history, then now you know. The #16 team in the nation, the Huskies have been mowing down opponents and sit with a 42-10 record with just 4 games remaining in the regular season. They have clinched the Big East Regular Season Championship and given all the odds stacked against the UConn program, the sustained success is something to be admired. Take a few minutes and learn about the success of the UConn Baseball program.

Penders is a husky through and through. He made his first appearance for the Huskies as a player in 1991 when he was on the varsity team. He was the co-captain his senior year in 1994 and led the Huskies to a 26-19 record, a Big East Tournament title, and an appearance in the NCAA Regionals. That season Penders hit .354 with 7 HRs and 46 RBIs, but thankfully for the UConn Baseball program, his connection to the team was not ending with graduation. In 1997, Penders became a graduate assistant and then was named a full assistant coach in 1999. When long-time coach Andy Baylock left the program in 2003, Penders took the reigns and hasn’t looked back. In his 3rd decade associated with the program and his 19th season as head coach of the Huskies, the impact Penders has had on the hundreds of players at UConn is amazing. While getting players drafted isn’t his only goals, Penders has had 21 players make a AA or higher roster and 10 players make an MLB roster in his tenure and since 2004, 58 Huskies have earned signing bonuses. Not bad for a New England baseball program.

Penders is the son of another coach in the CT area. His dad, Jim Penders Sr, helped UConn reach the College World Series as a player in 1965 and was the baseball coach for East Catholic High School in Manchester, CT (my hometown) from 1969-2012 and won four state titles in his amazing tenure. As if that wasn’t enough, his grandfather, Jim, was the head baseball coach at Stratford High School in CT from 1931-1968 and also won four state titles. On top of that, his brother Tom and uncle Rob are/were also baseball coaches, Tom with several universities including URI. While a parent’s profession doesn’t always dictate a career path for a child, its hardly a surprise that Penders followed in his family’s footsteps.

Overall, Penders is 646-424-5 in his head coaching career all at UConn. He is a 5-time conference coach of the year (4 in the Big East and 1 in the American) and has taken teams to the NCAA Regionals 7 times in 17 eligible seasons (one canceled due to COVID) and a Regional appearance is looking likely this season. Since 2010, UConn has missed the Regionals just 4 times, and Penders has even taken UConn one-step from the College World Series, losing in the NCAA Super Regional in 2011 to the eventual National Champion South Carolina Gamecocks (a team with current Red Sox player Jackie Bradley Jr in the outfield). The accomplishments are impressive on their own, but when you factor in the challenges stacked against UConn, it’s down right miraculous.

As a New England school, the most obvious disadvantage for Penders and UConn is weather. With the season beginning in February, some years it can be impossible to have any outside training because the fields are frozen or covered in snow. UConn has to play the vast majority of the first month of the season on neutral or away fields in warmer climates. The amount of travel early in the season is taxing and it’s certainly a disadvantage to not play at home for weeks on end. The weather both impacts the current roster and impacts recruiting. If you’re a baseball player looking at a prospective college and you know on day 1 that you need to spend the first month+ of the season on the road, it doesn’t help. Another disadvantage for success is actually the Big East Conference. The return to the Big East was met with cheers of joy for every sport at UConn except the baseball program. The level of teams in the Big East is frankly, not great. That greatly impacts their strength of schedule and any loss to a conference opponent is a big mark on their resume.

Despite those challenges, Penders continues to bring in quality people and players and has seen a number of former players reach the majors. With the exception of 2014, Penders has led his squad to 30+ wins in every season since 2009 (except the shortened COVID year) and with his 42nd win this year, he’s now reached that plateau three times in his career. The constant success has not change Penders one bit, with his calm demeanor and unassuming presence.


If you haven’t had the privilege of watching this season’s UConn Baseball team, you’re missing out. As with teams of the past 10+ years, they are fun to watch and play fundamental baseball. It can be tricky to find the game streams, but if all holds as expected, UConn will have some very high-profile games coming up in the NCAA Regionals and potentially beyond. This team certainly has the potential to be the 2nd team in Penders’ tenure to reach the Super Regionals, but there is a lot of work left to do.

As with many of the recent rosters for UConn, they are full of pitching talent. As of May 15th, their three primary starting pitchers, Austin Peterson, Enzo Stefanoni, and Pat Gallagher all had 13 starts and ERAs under 3. Peterson has been electric and has 112 Ks in 88.1 innings, which Gallagher has 84 Ks in 77.1 innings. Justin Willis has emerged as a reliable closer for the Huskies, when the games are even that close, securing 13 saves while striking out 34 in 18.1 innings. A shoutout to Jack Sullivan, who has appeared in 16 games for the Huskies over 18.1 innings and has a 0.49 ERA. As a pitching staff, they have a 3.14 ERA, 18 saves, and 507 Ks in 467 innings while holding opponents to a .242 average.

Not to be outdone, UConn’s offense has had it’s share of impressive performances. As with most UConn teams, there is some balanced-power, with solid averages. Erik Stock is having another nice season for the Huskies with a .400 average, 9 HRs and 49 RBIs in 210 at-bats. He’s joined by Ben Huber, Casey Dana, and Matt Donlan with 9+ HRs and as a team, they are hitting .300 on the season. They are helped on the base path by David Smith, who has 19 stolen bases on the season in 22 tries and with a .286 average, he’s getting on base with regularity for the Huskies. Overall their offense is very solid, if not amazing, but when you hit .300 and your pitching staff is only allowing opponents to hit .242, good things tend to happen.

What makes all of this even more impressive is who is missing on the roster. Reggie Crawford, pitcher and first baseman for UConn, was the #4 overall prospect heading into the fall when he was sidelined and forced to miss the entire 2022 season thanks to an arm injury that led to Tommy John surgery. Just imagine what this team would look like with one of their best overall talents.

I, for one, will be following and cheering hard for this great group of kids and coaches. They have had a tremendous year thus far and look to close out their final four regular season games on the road (1 at Bryant and 3 at Georgetown) on route to another Regional appearance. Let’s go Huskies!

UConn Reloads in the Transfer Portal

The abrupt and early end to the 2021-2022 UConn Men’s basketball season in the first game of the NCAA Tournament left a lot of people with a bad taste in their mouth. Yes, it was a tough matchup against New Mexico State, but there were questions about personnel and coaching immediately following the loss. That loss would be getting more airtime today if it wasn’t for an even more concerning trend with the roster that led to an extremely depleted group of guards: the transfer portal. After R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin decided not to use their extra year of eligibility thanks to the pandemic and chose to pursue professional opportunities, UConn was left with a thinner, but still viable group of guards in the frontcourt. Unfortunately for Dan Hurley, the exits didn’t stop there. Guards Jalen Gaffney (Sr), Rahsool Diggins (So), and Corey Floyd (Fr) all left the program, leaving the roster looking very bleak at the guard spot with just Andre Jackson (Jr) and Jordan Hawkins (So) on scholarship. On top of the guard exodus, Hurley lost Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley to graduation and forward Akok Akok to the transfer portal. Thankfully, less than 2 months later, the Huskies roster looks very different and much more robust.

There was a huge wave of players who entered the transfer portal now that they have an extra year of eligibility and don’t have to sit out a year. More than 1,400 players entered the portal this offseason which led to a ton of player movement and some completely re-worked rosters for next season. The Huskies certainly fit that bill, as they have already locked up East Carolina guard sophomore Tristen Newton (6’5″, 190lbs), Virginia Tech guard junior Nahiem Alleyne (6’4″, 195lbs), and Texas A&M guard sophomore Hassan Diarra (6’2″, 195lbs). The addition of those three guards makes UConn a lot more appealing of a roster going into the 2022-2023 season and adds a lot more collegiate playing experience to the guard group than what would have been there with Gaffney, Diggins, and Floyd. The Huskies will be fairly young behind Adama Sanogo in the backcourt, so some experience in other parts of the roster is important.

It’s likely that Hurley is done tapping into the transfer portal, although it wouldn’t shock me if he brought in one more piece, a veteran for depth. As the roster stands now, there are 3 available scholarship slots and it could be interesting to see how they are used, or not, come October. As it stands now, the roster is as follows:

Guards

Andre Jackson (Jr)

Nahiem Alleyne (Jr)

Tristen Newton (So)

Hassan Diarra (So)

Forwards/Centers

Adama Sanogo (Jr)

Richie Springs (RS Jr)

Samson Johnson (So)

Alex Karaban (Fr)

Donovan Clingan (Fr)

Overview

Despite the mass exodus of players, Dan Hurley has done a nice job to this point at reloading. The team will likely be led by point guard Tristen Newton, who played in 78 games for the East Carolina Pirates over the last three seasons and this past year averaged 17.7 points, 5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game. He has good size at 6’5″ and is a distributor, so should be able to run the offense on a nightly basis. He’ll be flanked by a combination of Jackson and Alleyne or Diarra in a 3 guard lineup. Alleyne is a consistent force who had appeared in 84 games for Virginia Tech over the past three seasons. Unlike Newton, Alleyne is a solid 3-point shooter, hitting 38.7% for his collegiate career, including nearly 41% in 2020-2021. His other stats aren’t particularly impressive, but at 6’4″, he has some good size and with some solid playing time I would expect him to become a higher-volume scorer and a solid defender. Diarra is an interesting player from Texas A&M. The brother of Mamadou, a UConn assistant coach, he’s a New York kid who played high-school ball at Putnam Science Academy in CT. In two seasons with the Aggies his numbers weren’t impressive, but neither was his playing time. As a 4-star recruit out of high school, he’s looking to find his place at UConn.

In the backcourt, UConn returns Adam Sanogo and fills the depth behind him with young, highly rated players. Two 4-star recruits will have their chance to impact the program next season in Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan. They join redshirt junior Richie Springs and sophomore Samson Johnson, both of whom have had little-to-no playing time in college. Springs has a total of 13 appearances and averages 3.2 minutes played in those games, while Johnson saw a total of 68 minutes last season, spread over 13 games. Karaban is a 6’8″ is a consensus top-50 player who is from Massachusetts who enrolled a semester early to get some extra work in. He is described as an outstanding outside shooter and solid rebounder. He figures to slot in as a wing/forward, potentially playing alongside Sanogo or Clingan in the backcourt. Clingan is a massive 7’1″, 265lb center who is in line to be the next in a long line of great big men in UConn history. The CT native was the 51st ranked recruit according to ESPN and 44th according to 247 sports. Clingan used his size to dominate in high school, setting a Bristol Central record when he dropped 51 points against Windsor last season, breaking a record he previous held. Learning the game from Sanogo and getting a chance to play early will greatly benefit Clingan as the knock on him seems to be a need to improve his defense. Lots of potential and youth in the backcourt.

Overall the Huskies are in a better place than a few months ago, but still have some question marks. It’s nice to have highly rated recruits and young players, but as we have all seen, not all of them pan out in the end. Without a senior on the roster, this team will certainly take a lot of patience and work from Dan Hurley and it will be interesting to see who steps up in an on-court leadership role. Sanogo is an obvious choice, but if Jackson can take the next step forward in his development and maturity, he could end up being a leader of the guard group. It will be interesting to see how the newer faces transition into the program when practices start up in the fall.

For now, I’m certainly more optomistic than I was just 2 months ago. The bleeding has stopped and the wounds have mostly healed. Now the question has become, what can Dan Hurley do with this new roster of players?

Hard Fought Battle Leads to the Sweet 16

The UConn Women’s basketball team faced one of their toughest battles on Monday night as they faced off against 7-seed UCF at Gampel Pavilion. The record 4,000 students were loud and raucous while they watched the best defensive team in the country, UCF Knights, muck up the game in an extreme way. The low-scoring, foul-filled contest was a true test for the Huskies, and in the end, the UConn Women’s basketball team set a new NCAA record as they punched their ticket to the 28th consecutive Sweet 16. It was ugly, but the Huskies did just enough to survive and advance.

UCF is the best defensive team in the country and they showed that tremendous strength on Monday night. They jumped into passing lanes, used the double-team liberally, and made physical plays in the paint on every single trip down the floor for the Huskies. The forced turnovers and bad shots for UConn and really put them on their heals on the offensive end. On their own offensive end, it was a completely different story. UCF committed 20 turnovers and at times looked completely lost in the half court. That’s partially thanks to the tough UConn defense and their ability to force UCF into mistakes. The Huskies exploited UCF’s offensive weakness and that ultimately was their demise. There aren’t many situations where a team is +7 in turnovers and gets the W.

This game was a tremendous test for the Huskies early in the tournament. They had to scrap and hustle during every possession and had to fight back after being down early. They got in foul trouble, some legitimate and some awful refereeing, and had both Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa foul out in the final few minutes and were able to overcome those losses. They got contributions from up and down the lineup when they needed them the most and were able to pull ahead for the 5-point victory. My hope is that being able to win in a game of this style will give this team confidence that they can continue their deep run into the tourney, especially against a team where the familiarity factor was significant.

Azzi Fudd showed her growth during her freshman season by leading the team with 16 points and 2 rebounds. When they needed her the most, she hit 4 threes and helped UConn reach the 50-point threshold, which was the mark for this type of game. She also was perfect from the free throw line (4-4), showing poise and maturity beyond her years. The only other Husky in double-digits was Christyn Williams, who finished the game with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal. Her senior leadership was key at moments when the team was getting frustrated.

It’s not likely that UConn will face a defensive team quite like UCF in the remainder of the tournament. Their Sweet 16 matchup, 3-seed Indiana, is a middle-of-the-pack defensive team. UConn should be able to hopefully score more than 52 points and play more of their style of basketball. After crushing 14-seed Charlotte in the first round, Indiana struggled to get past #11 Princeton. Indiana has very balanced scoring, with 5 players averaging 10+ points per game. They are led by a senior G Grace Berger who had 18 and 15 points respectively in their first two tournament games.

Fortunately for the Huskies they have a week to rest up and get ready for their matchup with Indiana.

March Sadness for UConn

To say Thursday night’s matchup with New Mexico State was frustrating would be the understatement of the year. The dreaded 12/5 upset in the NCAA Tournament reared its ugly head once again and UConn made an early exit for the second straight year. It was a disappointing way to end what could be the final season for several Huskies who have had a significant imprint on the rebuild of this program. There will be lots of time for reflection as the Huskies lick their wounds and regroup for next season, but here are some rash and not well-thought out initial reactions on the season.

Despite a really strong year and some monster performances from the senior guards, R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin, it felt like this team couldn’t quite get over the hump on so many occasions. Several close losses and tough finishes in games that they could, and should, have won. On top of that, this year was filled to the brim with more missed layups than I think I’ve ever seen. There were games where the unofficial count was in double-digits and often the missed gimmie shots really hurt their ability to grab momentum or win. Those missed shots and missed opportunities for wins came back to bite them in the end, as they sat on the brutal 5/12 line. A few more made shots and game closeouts and they are a 4 or even a 3 seed.

All that aside, they were also handed an awful matchup in a team that mirrors them in so many ways, but has what UConn did not: a star guard. New Mexico State has the x-factor guard that UConn has had in the past, and I wanted Cole to be, but he just isn’t quite at that level. He’s an amazing player and I’m grateful for all of his contributions, but he was never the guy that would consistently put the team on his back and be able to win games one-on-one. Some of that in stretches, absolutely, but not consistently with a minute on the clock in a close game. That was the piece that was missing from what could have been a nice NCAA Tournament run.

The other factor is Adama Sanogo. He would have stretches of being the most dominant player on the floor and even in the conference, but would struggle when opponents had size and were super physical. You could see his frustration on Thursday night that seeped into his mental state when he had opportunities to finish. He would rush the layup when he had time and missed a few 1 ft lay-ins that really seemed to mentally impact him. He will continue to get better and he has a legitimate shot at being the best big man in the country next season, but only if he learns how to take a breath and be a little more patient with the finish in close.

This team has given me such joy and heartache this year. They are a group you wanted to believe in and at times rewarded the fan loyalty with huge moments, like the win over then #8 Villanova that led to the first court storm in years for the Huskies. This team and these players have continued the rebuild under Dan Hurley and again took another step towards reinstalling the winning culture in Storrs, despite not moving past the first round for the second straight year. The fact the team is in the tournament for the 2nd straight year feels like miles ahead of where this program was 5 years ago. Much of that progress is thanks to the seniors and veteran leaders Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley who came back for another year of eligibility to continue the growth with Cole and Martin. The loss in no way diminishes the critical role they have had in making UConn relevant again.

Looking at next year, I have to wonder if we haven’t see the end of Cole and/or Martin in a UConn uniform. Neither seem to be near the top of draft boards and while there will likely be professional basketball opportunities, they might end up being overseas or not as lucrative. If they come back next year, UConn would have to be considered among the favorites to win the Big East and make another NCAA Tournament run (with hopefully better results). Another year in college could help them continue to move the program forward and mentor the strong freshman and sophomore class, guiding the next wave of Huskies. The rotation would be deeper and stronger than they’ve had in years, while allowing the younger players to grow into their roles as the next leaders on the team.

If this is the end, despite their flaws and my frustrations at times, this senior class has made me care and believe in the Huskies like I haven’t in a long time. Despite the tough matchup with New Mexico State on paper, my gut and heart told me this group of players had the potential to make a deep tournament run. They returned the feeling that UConn had every single year with Jim Calhoun at the helm and reinvigorated the fan base in a huge way. The future is bright at least in part thanks to these four players.

For now, I’m going to enjoy the rest of the NCAA Tournament and try to forget about their performance on Thursday night. Bleed blue.

NCAA Men’s Tournament: West Region Preview

The UConn Men’s basketball team is going dancing for the 2nd straight year after a 5-year gap. UConn has earned it’s highest seed since 2011 and was considered by the committee to be the 17th overall ranked team and #1 ranked 5-seed. While all of that is positive and to be in the NCAA Tournament is a goal every year, the committee certainly didn’t do UConn any favors putting them in the West Region. For me it’s the toughest region of them all in 2022 and the top seeds are an absolute gauntlet to run through if a team wants to play the Cinderella role, and there are some interesting Cinderella options. Let’s take a look at what makes this region so challenging.

The top 4 seeds in the region are #1 Gonzaga (#1 overall), #2 Duke, #3 Texas Tech, and #4 Arkansas. The Zags are the #1 overall team, not surprisingly, and they are paired with the lowest #2, #3, and #4, but they are far from easy matchups. There is certainly debate about Duke being a #2 seed and while I can understand the argument, that’s far from a favorable #2 paired with the Zags. The Blue Devils in March are always a tough matchup and know how to win in big tournament games. Whether they were playing their best basketball down the stretch or not seems not to matter, especially when they are playing for Coach K in his final season.

The #3 Texas Tech Red Raiders have had a really strong year in the Big 12, finishing 3rd in the regular season and 2nd in the conference tournament, losing to #1 seed Kansas in the title game. All 9 losses on the season for the Red Raiders were to quad 1 teams (8 wins) and they are ranked 9th in NET out of 358 teams. The Red Raiders are one of the toughest defensive teams in the country, ranking 1st out of all 358 teams in adjusted defense according to KenPom. Texas Tech is a veteran-led team that is a tough matchup for most anyone and certainly not an easy #3.

Not to be outdone, the lowest #4 seed Arkansas, is anything but an easy draw (and would be UConn’s 2nd game opponent if the bracket goes chalk). Arkansas turned themselves into one of the best defensive teams in the country later in the season and went 5-2 down the stretch of the regular season with both losses by a combined 5 points. Led by coach Eric Musselman, an outspoken coach who is known for being strong in the area player development, they will be ready. He already made his feelings known that playing Vermont and having UConn as a team in Buffalo was “interesting” based on geographic location. Arkansas is not an easy matchup for anyone and they are the #4 seed.

Looking at the rest of the region and specific matchups, it doesn’t get any easier. Tom Izzo and Michigan State are the #7 seed and face a really tough #10 Davidson team in their first game. Both teams have had past tournament success, obviously Izzo more than almost anyone, so it should be a fun matchup. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an upset there. Another upset alert game is the 4 vs 13. As much as I really like Arkansas as the #4, they have a really tough matchup against #13 Vermont, closer to Vermont’s home turf. Vermont will slow you down and drain the life out of you, which gives them a chance to be this region’s Cinderella.

The 8 vs 9 matchup is another great game. They usually are tight contests, but this one is especially interesting for me. The #8 Boise State Broncos are underseeded in my opinion, finishing the year with the regular season and conference tournament championship in the Mountain West Conference. Their 27-7 record included 7 quad 1 wins (3 losses) and 6 quad 2 wins (3 losses), which is an impressive feat. Their 1 quad 4 loss certainly hit their resume hard, but overall they were able to beat tournament-level teams. The #9 is Penny Hardaway’s Memphis team who had a rocky season, but made a run to the American Athletic Conference tournament final, losing to 5th seeded Houston. They finished with a 21-10 record (13-5 in the conference) and were just 8-8 against quads 1 and 2, and had 2 bad losses to quad 3 teams. Overall, this will be a fascinating game in terms of tempo, Memphis wanting to move the ball quickly and Boise State wanting to grind you down.

A play-in winner often makes a bit of a run in the tournament each year and the #11 in the West Region will be either Rutgers or Notre Dame. Notre Dame is a team that barely got into the tournament and most believe should have been out, which is just the type of story that leads to a surprising run. Rutgers had some bad losses, but overall faired much better against quad 1 teams compared to ND (Rutgers 6-6, ND 2-8) and frankly neither team was particularly impressive this season. I doubt either gets past the fast-paced #6 Alabama team.

As the #5 in the region, if UConn wants to make a run, it’s going to be a tough path. If, and it’s a big if, they beat #12 New Mexico State in round one and avoid the dreaded 12 over 5 upset, than they likely face the tough Arkansas Razorbacks. If for some reason they are able to make the 2nd weekend, then the #1 overall seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs are likely their opponent. If for some reason they can upset the Zags, then they could play Duke or Texas Tech. While that’s a crazy hypothetical, that’s an absolute gauntlet and makes a deep run damn near impossible for the Huskies this year. That being said, stranger things have happened in the NCAA Tournament…

Game Preview: #5 UConn vs #12 New Mexico State

Quick Details

Gametime: 6:50pm Thursday, March 17th on TNT

Arena: KeyBank Center in Buffalo, NY

Previous matchups: N/A

Odds (as of 3/14): UConn -6.5, o/u 131.5 (according to Yahoo)

New Mexico State Overview

New Mexico State was the automatic qualifier out of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) this season after winning the tournament championship in fairly convincing fashion. They finished the year at 26-6 (13-4 in conference) and averaged 74.2 points per game this season. The team’s leader is G Teddy Allen who finished the season as the leading scorer in the WAC (19.3 points/game) and the 5th leading rebounder in the WAC (6.8 per game). The former West Virginia Cavalier and Nebraska Cornhusker, Allen transferred to the Aggies after last season and has seen improvement in almost every statistical category. Now as a Junior, the 6’6″ guard has experience playing Big 10 and Big 12, so he won’t be intimidated by a bigger and more powerful matchup in the tournament. On the defensive side, the Aggies were one of the best at limiting opponents scoring in the WAC. They finished 2nd in the conference holding opponents to a 39.1% field goal percentage and 1st in points per game against (61.2). In all games, they allowed 65.0 points per game.

Matchup

Overall, these two teams are fairly close in a number of statistical categories, which is interesting. Both have committed a similar number of turnovers on the season (375 – NM St, 380 – UConn), both allow a similar number of points per game (65.0 – NM St., 65.2 – UConn), both are in the mid-to-bottom of the NCAA in total fouls committed (508 – NM St, 538 – UConn), and both teams run a slower-paced tempo overall (223rd – NM St, 291 – UConn). The huge difference for me is in their strength of schedule, naturally. UConn has played the 27th hardest schedule in all of the NCAA, while the Aggies schedule is 131st. Additionally, UConn has a KenPom of 18th, while New Mexico State is 81st and KenPom ranks New Mexico State as the 17th luckiest team in the country whereas UConn is 248th luckiest (out of 358)*.

New Mexico State has some size up front in Will McNair Jr. and Yuak Alok who are 6’10” and 6’11” respectively. (Sidenote: I desperately hope we see Akok vs Alok) It will be interesting to see if they can limit Adama Sanogo inside or if Sanogo’s brute strength gets the New Mexico State frontcourt in early foul trouble. If they are able to limit Sanogo inside, then there will be more pressure on Tyrese Martin and R.J. Cole to provide some offense and Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley to draw the taller players further from the rim on defense. Defensively, if UConn can slow down Teddy Allen like they have in the past with their opponent’s best guard (i.e. Collin Gillespie in the Big East Tournament), then New Mexico State will have a hard time putting up points, playing right into the Huskies hands.

Prediction – UConn 69-62

Given the style of play and focus, I’m guessing this could be more of a grind-out game than a high-scoring affair, something UConn is all too familiar with. I think UConn does a nice job slowing down Allen and gets Sanogo involved in the play, but the big man doesn’t dominate inside against the size and length of the Aggie’s. I do think Sanogo’s ability to score down low will draw a number of fouls early against the New Mexico State frontcourt and allow UConn to build a small first half lead. The Aggies inability to hit FTs (under 70% as a team) will hurt them in late-game situations and the easy ride for UConn fans to head to Buffalo should give them the edge in crowd noise. I’m taking UConn in a hard-fought, close 69-62 victory.

*The luck measurement is the deviation between a team’s actual winning percentage and what one would expect from it’s game-by-game efficiencies. A team involved in a lot of close games should lose all of them. Those that win those games are considered luckier.

Sky is the Limit for a Healthy UConn Women’s Team

This has been one of the most challenging seasons in recent memory for the UConn Women’s basketball team. Injuries on top of injuries have continually altered plans and projections for this year’s squad and led to many situations fans are not used to seeing with the Huskies. The season has been filled with uncommon occurrences: their lowest top-25 ranking in 14 years, tied for the most loses since 2011-2012 (5), and their first conference loss after 169 straight conference wins. All of the adversity and challenges have led to this moment as they await their NCAA Tournament seeding. Healthier than they have been in months and poised to be a #2 seed, it feels like UConn has another trophy within their reach.

Despite all the hurdles to overcome this year, most may be a blessing in disguise. In an ideal world, they don’t deal with the plethora of injuries throughout the season, but it has allowed a lot of players to get more playing time and attention than they would have otherwise, especially the star-studded freshman class. The loss of star Paige Bueckers with a knee injury was the biggest hit in December and really forced others to step into the role of go-to playmaker. One of the bigger surprises for me was freshman Caroline Ducharme’s rise this year offensively. If you had told me before the season that the Milton, MA native would be the 3rd leading scorer on this stacked team I would not have believed you. There was a stretch in December and January where she was arguably the best player on the team and was hitting big shots every night. With all the hype around Azzi Fudd, I expected her to be the freshman who shone brightest. Fudd had a great year and settled in with a few big games, but like others, the injury bug bit her and she didn’t get a full season. Fudd had back-to-back 25+ point games in February against Villanova (a loss) and Tennesee (a win) where she showed everyone that with a little more experience, she could be great.

The combo of the young stars Ducharme and Fudd was impressive at times and their development was critical this year despite being more accelerated than the original plan, but what makes this team so powerful and scary in the NCAA Tournament (besides being healthy) is their seniors. When it comes time to make the right play late in an important NCAA Tournament game, having the experience of two senior guards, Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook, to make the right decision and two veteran forwards, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Dorka Juhasz, the team is in great hands. The roster went from depleted and very thin to extremely deep in a few short weeks. While this is clearly the less challenging of the two scenarios, it will be interesting to see how Geno Auriemma manages playing time in the tournament.

While it depends on the matchup who is actually on the floor, to have experienced talent mixed with the young and hopefully fresh legs will be critical. With four freshman or sophomore guards on the team, Paige Bueckers, Nika Muhl, Ducharme, and Fudd, there is a lot of young energy ready to go. Bueckers, if feeling 100%, should be super fresh given all the time she missed, which could benefit the Huskies deep in games. The craziest part of breaking down the roster? I haven’t even mentioned Aaliyah Edwards yet and she’s a critical sophomore presence inside for the Huskies who had double figures scoring in 5 of the team’s last 8 games and was third on the team in total rebounding this year (behind Nelson-Ododa and Juhasz). The depth on this team for this year’s tournament run is impressive.

As long as health is on their side, UConn should be able to march deep into the tournament this year and perhaps find themselves in yet another final four. They have all the components of a championship caliber team, but with very few games this season with the entire roster available to Geno Auriemma, there are questions. For me, the only thing that can get in UConn’s way is their lack of experience playing together as a full team and how the rotations are handled. There were glimpses of that more recently, but with Bueckers playing fairly limited minutes. I’m guessing come tournament time, Paige will be playing more and unleashed (especially deeper in the run). If there is any coach in the country that can figure that the right balance for his players it’s Geno, but in a high-pressure, close tournament game, that inexperience playing as one unit could rear it’s head. I, for one, am expecting to be watching the Huskies the first week of April in Minneapolis.

Big East Tournament Run Falls Short for UConn, Sanogo

After a convincing W against Seton Hall on Thursday night, the UConn Men’s basketball team had a late-night date with the #8 Villanova Wildcats for a spot in the Big East Tournament championship game. From the jump, it was a tight back and forth contest in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd and would you expect anything less? These two teams had already played twice this year, with each team winning at their respective home arena, so the familiarity was there and it came down to execution. As with most games in the Big East Tournament, it came down to a one-possession game late.

UConn’s game plan going into Friday was to shut down guards Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore for Villanova and make Brandon Slater and Jermaine Samuels beat them from deep. Early on, the plan worked well in that Gillespie and Moore were very quiet. On the other side, Nova countered the strategy by empowering Slater and Samuels to hit threes and burn the Huskies. UConn absolutely dominated the points in the paint in the first half, but Adama Sanogo was unusually bad at finishing his shots which ultimately came back to haunt the Huskies. A well played, well coached, well executed game in general, but UConn ultimately fell to the perennial powerhouse Nova by 3. While disappointing, they should still be holding their heads up high after the performance.

The goal is obviously a W, but taking the #8 team in the country to the brink in a do-or-die game will fuel the fire for an NCAA Tournament run. Projected as a 5 seed at the moment, the matchups for UConn will play a factor in their success. I’ve said this before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, if UConn plays their best basketball, there is no team in the country they can’t beat. If Sanogo has a better shooting performance on Friday night, UConn wins. Now the loss is not all on Adama, but it illustrates the point about the strength of this team. Their defense and rebounding is one of the best in all of basketball and it was clear against Villanova. The Big East player of the year, Collin Gillespie only had 5 points in the game. He’s a smart player and was able to dish the ball a lot, but UConn was able to completely shut down his offense. Not many teams in the country can win with their best player being held down for 35+ minutes.

The wildcard for this team is consistent offense. When the offense is clicking, they are tough to stop, but have a tendency to get stuck and go through prolonged scoring droughts. Against a top tier team, long 5+ minute scoring droughts will be tough to overcome. The defense can keep them in a game, but obvious they need to score to win (thank you John Madden). Tyrese Martin has become a consistent force offensively, R.J.Cole is the sparkplug and Mr. clutch, Andre Jackson is all over the place, Tyler Polley can drain 3s, and Sanogo can dominate inside, but they rarely are all clicking at the same time. The Nova game saw a strong showing from Martin, a few big shots from Jackson and Sanogo who struggled to put the ball in the hoop despite getting the looks and they lost. They need more consistency inside and out to keep opponents guessing and to get quality chances offensively.

Hopefully the selection committee does UConn a solid and puts them in a favorable bracket. If so, the Huskies could be dancing deep into the 2nd weekend. More to come…

Can UConn Make a Deep Tournament Run?

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.

The Creighton Curse Bites UConn Again

UConn came into Wednesday night’s matchup with Creighton on the road looking for revenge and a lock of the #3 seed in the Big East Tournament. After Creighton beat UConn in Hartford earlier this season 59-55, this date was circled on the calendar for payback. Unfortunately, UConn left with a giant L, a drop in Big East Tournament seeding, and several concerning injuries. Now sitting at 0-5 all-time against the Bluejays, there seems to be a mental block for the Huskies when they see the Creighton uniforms. They came out ice-cold on Wednesday night and for the 2nd time this season, trailed by 10pts at half against this team. After a valient comeback, the Huskies squandered several opportunities to take the lead and ultimately couldn’t get over the hump. The implications of the loss are fairly significant and could change the Huskies chances in the Big East Tournament with 1 regular season game to play.

Creighton coach Greg McDermott has a way of motivating his team when they play the Huskies. They seem to play harder and more aggressively, putting pressure on UConn from start to finish. When UConn gets back into a game, Creighton finds a way to do just enough to prevent the train from coming off the rails and ultimately is able to pull out a counterpunch. In Wednesday night’s matchup it felt like the game was tied at 50 for an hour after UConn was down 16 and came back. The Huskies ramped up their defense and got stops but couldn’t get a shot to drop if their lives depended on it. Not being able to get past the hump and take a lead, Creighton was able to grab hold of the game and pull out the close victory.

Overall, a 40.9% (27/66) FG percentage and a 27.3% (6/22) 3pt percentage is just not good enough. Add to that just 5 FT attempts all game and just 2 made FTs, UConn had opportunities that they just plain missed. For long stretches in this game the Huskies looked like the team from the middle of the season that was struggling to find its identity and losing close games on the regular. One of the biggest shifts for them that led to the 5-gane win streak was their ability to limit the damage and shift momentum after an opponent run. Tonight, it felt like the first 16 min of the game were one prolonged ice-cold streak followed by a short run and then an inability to get the big shot when the game was tied that seemed to demoralize UConn and energize the Bluejays. Overall, Adama Sanogo was guarded very well by Creighton and with the shots not falling, other players weren’t able to capitalize when Sanogo was doubled or tripled inside.

There were several scary injury moments in the game. In the first half, Sanogo left with a dislocated finger, Tyrese Martin left with what appeared to be a hand or wrist injury, and Jordan Hawkins left with a suspected concussion. Thankfully Sanogo and Martin returned to play, but Hawkins did not. All three are critical players for this Huskies team and there would be a huge hole without them going forward. Without Hawkins for much of the game, the bench got short very quick and in a high-intensity contest, it seemed that UConn was fatigued down the stretch. They were also missing Hawkins offensive ability and his threat to hit a three or drive for 2. It really became a 7-man rotation, which is tough in a tight, bruising Big East matchup.

With the loss, UConn falls to 4th in the Big East, which makes their path to the Big East Tournament title tougher. As a #3 seed, they would face either Georgetown or Seton Hall in the semifinals, but as the #4, they would likely face #5 Marquette in the semifinals, which is a tougher matchup. Then, if they were to win the semis, they would likely face the #1 Providence as a #4, rather than #2 Villanova if they were a #3 on their path to the title game (assuming no upsets). The loss also hurts UConn in their NCAA seeding and may drop them back to the 5 line without a deep conference tournament run. A #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament is much more favorable than a #5, obviously. None of that matters if UConn can play well, get some MSG magic and make a deep run, because a deep Big East Tournament run could push them up to the 4 or even possibly the 3 line for the NCAA Tournament.

Overall, the Creighton curse struck again on Wednesday night and added an L to the Huskies record. Not ideal for a team trying to play their best basketball down the stretch.