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.

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.

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?

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.