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?

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.