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.

Kimani Young: Breakout Star

It took only only 24 minutes and 53 seconds for Kimani Young to cement his status as one of the most coveted assistant coaches in NCAA Men’s Basketball. After Dan Hurley was enthusiastically ejected by referee James Breeding with 4:53 remaining in the first half of UConn’s game vs the #8 Villanova Wildcats for pumping up the crowd, Young stepped in as the head coach for the Huskies. He proceeded to lead UConn to one of the biggest wins in recent memory and received some national attention in the process. Young’s calm demeanor and poise under pressure was on display for the whole basketball world to see on Tuesday.

Young joined Dan Hurley’s staff at UConn in April 2018 and rose to assume the Associate Head Coach role in September of 2020. The fact that he’s risen through the ranks to now be considered a top candidate for a head coaching position in the next year or two is amazing given his life story. After becoming a basketball star at UTEP, Young looked like he was on a solid path until he was arrested for possession of 96 pounds of marijuana and spent a year in federal prison. He doesn’t talk about that part of his life much, but hung around the wrong people at the wrong time and made a bad decision. Following his time in prison, Young began to rebuild his life and spent time working at a few foundations in New York.

About a decade later and Young is the Athletic Director at New Heights Youth, Inc with his life back on the rails. He’s married with three young children and living in New York when tragedy strikes. His wife, Sharette Dixon, got sick with what seemed like a normal cold that progressed into pneumonia and at age 39, she passed away unexpectedly. Young was now faced with being a single father to three children under 6. Another major life event and another opportunity to overcome adversity.

“That was a hard one, man. That was a hard one. My kids motivated me the most. I knew I had three small children that I was responsible for and I just said, ‘look, we’re going to figure this thing out.’ …We just kind of circled the wagons. They were young, but we put a system in place. We had a schedule, we had a nanny, we had a slew of people that were willing to help. As they got older, I had the ability to get back in college — they were all in school. We haven’t looked back.”

Kimani Young in an interview with the Hartford Courant in 2018

Young was able to get by with the support of his network and once again build himself back up. In 2012, he got an opportunity to jump into the college coaching ranks when Richard Pitino hired him for his staff at Florida International. The next season, when Pitino took the Minnesota job, Young came along with him and stayed for 5 seasons. In 2018, Dan Hurley came calling and Young took the opportunity to return to the east coast and as a Queens, NY native, the job at UConn made a ton of sense. He could use his connections in New York and the surrounding areas, a hot bed for UConn recruiting, and have the opportunity to grow and learn under Hurley. Just 4 years later, the decision has proven to be a wise one, both for UConn and Young.

Officially, Young is attributed with recruiting responsibilities, practice planning and game strategy (according to the UConn website). Those responsibilities came in handy on Tuesday night when he was forced to take over the game strategy as head coach in the first half of UConn’s game vs #8 Villanova. He seamlessly stepped in for the ejected Hurley and calmly managed the game and his players. Hurley’s ejection forced a 6pt swing thanks to free throws and the next possession, but Young remained calm. He knew just when to give the players leeway to take chances, when to yell in play calls and encouragement from the sidelines, and picked the right moments to use his timeouts at the end of the game. He drew up the play that sprung Tyler Polley over the screen for a 3 that cut the deficit to 1pt and put the ball in R.J. Cole’s hands for the game-winning shot. If you didn’t know anything about what transpired in the first half, you would never have known UConn was without their head coach down the stretch. Young was prepared and ready to step in without issue and looked like a veteran pacing the sidelines.

While Young was already on some watch lists for head coaching vacancies, his stock has certainly risen even more after his performance on Tuesday night. He got the chance to show the world that he’s ready to be a head coach now and took full advantage. Unfortunately for UConn, he’s likely not returning next season, but it’s hard not to be happy for Young given the adversity he has faced throughout his life. No matter where he ends up next, that school will be lucky to have him.

Massive W for the UConn Huskies

After some inconsistent play throughout much of the regular season, the UConn Huskies Men’s Basketball program has risen to the challenge down the stretch. UConn faced their toughest challenge of the season on Tuesday night when they matched up with #8 Villanova at the XL Center. From the opening tip to the final whistle, it was one of the most exciting games of the season for the Huskies in front of more than 15,000 fans in Hartford (one of the best UConn crowds in recent memory). UConn played one of their most consistent games all season with high energy and grit for the entire 40-minute game, with contributions up and down the rotation. With under a minute left, UConn was able to overcome a 4pt deficit thanks to Tyler Polley‘s sharp-shooting, very strong defense, and a massive game-winner from the heart and soul of the team, R.J. Cole. When the buzzer sounded, the students stormed the court and a message was sent out to the college basketball world: UConn is back and coming for you.

This has been a rollercoaster season for the Huskies, filled with what ifs and stretches of forgotten identity. Tuesday night was their 20th victory of the year and arguably their most complete game played in several weeks, if not all season. Being back in the Big East means a tough game almost every single night in conference play and as a result, a number of close losses in which UConn was one or two plays away from securing the W. Earlier in the season, this would have been a close loss filled with questions. Since their several week COVID pause in December and into January, UConn is 11-3 with their losses coming to Creighton (by 4), Villanova (by 11), and Xavier (by 6). They have gone on a revenge tour the last week, beating Xavier and Villanova in their 2nd matchup and if they can beat Creighton on March 2nd, will have avenged their losses. If the season ended today, they would be a #3 seed in the Big East Tournament, which gives them a really strong chance to improve their resume for the NCAA Tournament (currently a 4th or 5th seed).

Throughout the season, UConn has shown signs of being a top team, but hasn’t put it all together until recently. They started the season off strong with a great showing in the Battle for Atlantis with a huge victory over now #3 Auburn in OT (their only loss for most of the season), followed by a 4pt loss to Michigan State (shorthanded with Whaley out) and then a nice rebound victory against VCU. Despite cold streaks, awful layup percentages, and foul trouble (looking at you Adama Sanogo), UConn has been able to lean on it’s defensive intensity and offensive rebounding to keep them in games when the offense disappeared. We’re seeing a more complete UConn team this past week because they have continued their defensive identity while also limiting their cold streaks offensively. As they get more confident individually and as a group, more layups are falling and their offensive game has improved.

A great example of the improved offensive game was Tuesday night. More specifically, there was a turning point in the game after Dan Hurley was ejected for a ridiculous 2nd technical (an entirely separate rant). The technical free throws and possession led to a 6pt swing for the Wildcats with hardly any time coming off the clock at a pivotal time in the game with 4ish minutes left in the first half. At a different point in the season, that deficit could have led to forced shots and digging a deeper hole on the offensive end, but instead, it led to a nice offensive run with smart shots and increased defensive intensity to pull back tied. The confidence the team has in each other was obvious and it led to an incredibly strong performance against a top tier team with tons of experience. The signature win will only help to continue building the team’s confidence down the stretch.

Another shift that was interesting to watch and gives this team a new dimension going into the postseason was Andre Jackson as the baller handler. He athleticism and speed helped UConn get out in transition and for the most part, he was able to take care of the ball without his tendency for silly turnovers. The new twist of Jackson running point more often puts Tyrese Martin and R.J. Cole in better spots to get their shots and definitely gives the offense an energy boost. It also gives the opponent different looks and allows Cole to have more energy down the stretch for the big bucket at the end. Jackson has always been praised for his athleticism and speed, but now it feels like he’s more comfortable using that to exploit the opponent. He is a strong passer and the more he has the ball in his hands to facilitate, the more engaged he is on the offensive end. He can’t run point every possession, but as a change of pace, it’s great.

Overall, UConn is peaking at the right time and is back to being relevant again. If their strong play continues over the next few weeks, they have a real chance to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament in a year where the field is pretty wide open. If they can improve their seeding and grab a #4, maybe even a #3 seed, they will have a good chance at making a 2nd weekend appearance and perhaps even beyond. Tough and gritty defense with a strong big man inside and a veteran point guard who isn’t afraid to take the big shot at the end. Sound familiar?

Missed Layups are Killing the Huskies

Despite being ranked #24 in the AP College Basketball poll this week, there are some obvious and consistent issues with the UConn Huskies men’s basketball team this season. Their return to the Big East has meant tough conference games every few nights and this UConn team has struggled with bad stretches throughout the season. Take this past week for example, the now 17-7 Huskies took care of business at home with an 8-pt win against the then ranked #18 Marquette Golden Eagles on Tuesday, then lost on the road to then #25 Xavier by 6-pts, then squeaked out a 3-pt road win at their home-away-from-home Madison Square Garden against St. Johns. The up and down performances have been framed by a few consistent issues, the most glaring is their horrible efficiency on close shots and layups which is head-scratching.

UConn is ranked #225 in the country in 2-pt field goal percentage (out of 328 total schools). They are shooting just 43.3% on 2-pt tries, which is awful for a team with NCAA Tournament expectations. If they want to make a deep run, for me, this is the #1 thing they need to fix in the next few weeks. When you look at the 7 losses UConn has this season, only 1 was by more than 6-pts and 5 of the 7 were 4-pts or fewer. Just imagine what this team would look like with a respectable field-goal percentage, even just 2 more layups made per game. It’s within the realm of possibility that this team could be sitting at 23-2 and in the top 10 in the country with better offense. The good news for UConn is there is still time to improve this number with an eye toward the postseason and if they can, watch out.

Thus far, the awful layup percentage has been mostly offset by UConn’s ability to pull down offensive rebounds. UConn is ranked 7th in the country in total offensive rebounds at 321 and they are averaging and impressive 13.4 per game. If they continue to struggle inside the arc, this could be their saving grace in close games come tournament time. If Adama Sanogo, Isaiah Whaley, and Tyrese Martin can stay out of foul trouble and continue to pull down offensive rebounds at more than 2 per game, then this team can make up for poor shooting nights against some opponents. As great as the offensive rebound number is, it would be nice if UConn didn’t have to grab an offensive rebound on so many gimmie 2-pt field goals.

Overall, UConn’s defense has been very solid this season and they are continuing the tradition of being a block powerhouse. They are currently 2nd in the nation in blocked shots with 163, behind only the far and away leader in #2 Auburn (who lost to UConn in November). Like offensive rebounding, a staunch defense can compensate (to some degree) for a weaker offensive performance. The frustrating piece is that this team is capable of putting both together and overwhelming opponents, but has, unfortunately, had very few truly complete games all season. When the defense is humming and the layups are falling, UConn can beat any team in the country. Can they put it all together in March?

Sitting at 3rd in the Big East only behind top-10 teams in Villanova and Providence, UConn is poised to make the NCAA tournament barring a catastrophic meltdown. As of today, according to Joe Lunardi at ESPN, UConn is projected as a #6 seed, which can, and will, fluctuate a ton before the tournament begins. With 4 of their last 6 games against projected tournament teams (including current #10 Villanova), UConn has a chance to build on it’s resume and improve it’s seed. Once the Big East Tournament begins at Madison Square Garden, all bets are off for the Huskies because they have some historical magic in that building. A strong finish will quiet a lot of the Husky doubters and give the team momentum going into March.

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.

Huge Statement Win for UConn Men’s Basketball

Coming into the Battle for Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas, the UConn Men’s basketball team had not faced a true challenge. They were 4-0 and had looked like a strong team early, but without a real measuring stick to determine of they are for real or just beating up on lesser talent. The Battle for Atlantis tournament field is stacked and there are tough opponents to face at every corner. After just one game in the tournament, UConn has a statement win and have put the basketball world on high alert that they are for real and can hang with the big dogs.

Let me start by saying that the #22 UConn vs #19 Auburn game was one of the best I have seen in a long time. When not playing UConn, Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers are an energetic, fun team to watch. They like to get out in transition and have the ability to score in bunches, both inside and out. They are tenacious on defense and matched up well with the tough, hard-nosed UConn team that has begun to find some scoring. Both teams are well coached and have some young talent they hope will develop into stars. This game was chock-full of scoring runs, lead changes, momentum shifts, big shots, big defensive stops, and clutch plays.

It seemed like UConn had several chances to put the game away in regulation and both OTs, but Auburn kept fighting back and making clutch play after clutch play. Auburn’s full-court press forced several mistakes and turnovers from UConn and led to some quick point swings when the Tigers desperately needed them. Freshman Jabari Smith had a slow first half, but had some huge shots in the 2nd half and OTs on his way to 22pts on the night. The most impressive Tiger was K.D. Johnson, who seemed to be everywhere on offense and defense on his way to a strong 27pt performance with 5 big steals. When he wasn’t collecting a steal, he was pressing UConn into bad passes and tougher shots.

For UConn, Adama Sanogo was an absolute beast. He finished with 30pts, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks, but the most amazing sign of improvement in his game was his ability to play with 4 fouls for a long time without fouling out. Sanogo picked up his 4th foul with 7:13 left in the 2nd half and was able to play solid defense, although a bit more passive, and be a strong offensive presence for the remainder of regulation and 2 OTs. His ability to stay on the floor was huge for the Huskies and played a major factor in the win. RJ Cole and Tyler Polley added 24pts each and freshman Jordan Hawkins had 16pts in 15 minutes. He had a tough turnover that ultimately led to a 2nd OT, but overall had a strong game and showed some promise with his ability to score in bunches.

It’s only 1 game and there is no time to celebrate with a noon Thanksgiving day matchup with Michigan State less than 24 hours later, but it’s a significant W to take the Huskies to 5-0. They are already building their resume with a top 25 win and can continue to pad that in this early season with another win or two in paradise. As the younger players improve and the team begins to gel, the Huskies will continue to get better and hopefully have many more big wins this season.

Adama Sanogo: The Reason UConn Will Make a Deep Run

There are a lot of things to be excited for with the UConn men’s basketball season opener just around the corner. Despite losing James Bouknight to the NBA, the Huskies return a strong roster and welcome 4 top-100 ranked freshman. The roster consists of potentially the deepest talent in recent history at UConn and with that, high expectations. They were picked to finish 2nd in the Big East behind perennial powerhouse Villanova and are beginning the season in the top-25 for the first time in 5 years at #24. This year will certainly be interesting and the team’s ceiling is quite high, but I believe the most important x-factor for the Huskies in 2021-2022 is Adama Sanogo.

Last season as a freshman, Sanogo showed flashes of strength. He grew into his own throughout the season and finished 4 of the final 5 games of the season, including the postseason, with double-digit points and grabbed his first career double-double with 10 rebounds against Georgetown. He had issues getting into foul trouble which limited his minutes at times, but when he was on the floor he had an impact. Overall, Sanogo shot 55.4% from the field, but in 2 games in the Big East Tournament he was much more efficient, shooting 66.7% from the field. In games UConn went on to win, Sanogo shot at a higher percentage from the field (+2.6%) and a higher rebound-per-game average (+0.75/game).

The sample size wasn’t huge considering it was one season and an odd one at that with COVID issues, but Sanogo passed the eye-test. His big, strong 6’9″ 240lb wide frame allows him to bang around down low for the Huskies and take up space in the paint. His strength makes up for his slightly undersized height down-low and that gives him the edge to play at the 5-spot this year. With the addition of experience and more time being trained by Dan Hurley, Sanogo has the potential to grow into playing a crucial big-man role for the Huskies in 2021 and beyond and early indications are really strong. According to reports, Sanogo dropped 22 pts on 8-13 shooting in a closed door scrimmage against Harvard recently and along with RJ Cole, is getting a lot of buzz for his offensive prowess as we approach the season.

With a potentially weaker offensive backcourt for the Huskies, at least to start the season, the frontcourt for the Huskies may need to carry some more scoring weight and they have the talent to do that. Along with Sanogo, Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley return for a 5th year and Akok Akok returns to try and redeem himself in his junior season after a tough last few years with injuries. The four in the frontcourt rotation are all athletic and 6’9″, so they provide a bit of length and flexibility. The other 2 frontcourt players on the roster are sophomore Richie Springs (also 6’9″) and freshman Samson Johnson, who comes in as the tallest of the group at 6’10”, but will likely have trouble getting playing time unless there are some injuries or he lights the world on fire.

If Sanogo can progress at the speed we hope and show more consistency (and less silly fouls), he can become a major factor in UConn’s success this season. I believe that if the Huskies are to make a deep run into the tournament this season, Adama Sanogo will be a big reason why.