Following a close loss to Indiana at Madison Square Garden, the UConn men’s basketball team had three matchups against bottom-of-the-barrel teams: Saint Peter’s, New Hampshire and NJIT. After handling the Peacocks and Wildcats with relative ease, the Huskies look to end 2019 on a high note with a matchup against NJIT at the XL Center.
Much like the two previous games, UConn shouldn’t have much trouble handling the Highlanders but after the home loss to Saint Joseph’s earlier this season, nothing is out of the question. NJIT comes to Hartford with a 3-9 record this season, with their most recent win coming against Division III Kean College before Christmas. Outside of that win, the Highlanders beat Cornell and Wagner in mid-November and haven’t beat a Division I opponent since, losing seven straight.
NJIT is led by junior Zach Cooks, the most prolific scorer in the program’s history. A unanimous preseason All-Atlantic Sun selection, Cooks set a program record earlier this season with a 35-point performance against Binghamton, then followed that up with a 30-point game against Brown. He ranks sixth in the nation in scoring at 23.1 points per game and might be one of the most prolific scorers the Huskies face all season.
Expect Cooks to play almost the full 40 minutes, take the bulk of the shots on offense and try to get to the line early and often. Cooks is top 25 in the country in free throws made (5.2) and free throws attempted (6.6) per game.
Outside of Cooks, the Highlanders also occasionally rely on San Antonio Brinson (8.3 points per game) and Shyquan Gibbs (7.8). Souleymane Diakite serves as the Highlanders’ top rebounder and shot blocker, but make no mistake, this team lives and dies by Cooks. Keeping him from getting into the lane and forcing him to shoot from three, where he shoots just 32.5 percent, will be key to help UConn prevent the upset.
Expect the Huskies to get Josh Carlton involved from the start against NJIT to help get him back on track for conference play. After a hot start to the season that established him as a dominant big man and one of the Huskies’ top scoring options, Carlton has faltered as of late, posting just six points and 11 rebounds total in two games against Saint Peter’s and New Hampshire and playing just 14 minutes against UNH.
Outside of Diakite, NJIT lacks size and ranks as one of the shortest teams in Division I, according to KenPom. This mismatch serves as the perfect opportunity for Carlton to work in the low post and get back to flirting with double-doubles on a nightly basis. If Carlton can get a few easy buckets in the opening minutes, it might be enough to get his confidence back and trending in the right direction ahead of a crucial New Year’s Day matchup against Cincinnati.
Prediction: UConn gets Carlton back on track and records a double-double and to help the Huskies cruise to an 82-63 victory to end 2019 on a high note. Alterique Gilbert, Christian Vital and Jalen Gaffney help keep Cooks contained and frustrate NJIT on offense for the full 40 minutes.
How to watch
Where: XL Center - Hartford, Connecticut
When: 1:00 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Radio Network