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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.