After shaking off the rust and putting away Maine for an easy win on Sunday, the UConn men’s basketball team returns to action with some stiffer competition as they welcome the Iona Gaels to Gampel Pavilion.
The Gaels (2-2) have quietly become one of the most successful mid-major programs in the Northeast, winning four-straight MAAC conference tournament championships and appearing in four NCAA tournaments in a row. This season, Iona was picked as the MAAC favorite and returns three key players from last year’s squad: E.J. Crawford, Tajuan Agee and Asante Gist.
Crawford, a Hartford native, is the focal point of the Iona offense and one of the MAAC’s best players. He’s struggled from the longer 3-point line this season (21.1 percent), but has shown to be a good shooter during his career, shooting 37.9 percent from deep last season. He’s averaging 15.2 points, five rebounds and 1.8 steals per game and could also pose a matchup problem for UConn’s smaller guards at 6-foot-6.
Agee has built off a strong freshman season with a fantastic start to his sophomore year. The 6-foot-9 forward is the only other Gael scoring in double figures, averaging a team best 17 points per game while averaging nine rebounds and 2.3 blocks per contest. On top of that, he’s shown the ability to step out to hit 3-pointers occasionally and ranks No. 2 in the country in free throw rate according to KenPom.
With Agee’s size and skill, Josh Carlton and Akok Akok are in for a more difficult test than what they faced against Maine. While they should get a boost with the return of Sidney Wilson, who will play after missing the Maine game with a knee injury, slowing down Agee will be key for the Huskies. If Carlton, Akok and Wilson can stay out of foul trouble, their size and athleticism may be enough to throw Agee off his game.
Gist leads the team in assists, averaging 4.5 per game, and serves as the facilitator to get Crawford and Agee going. Like many of the Gaels, Gist isn’t afraid to shoot the three but isn’t converting them often. He’s shooting 30.8 percent from deep this year and Iona as a team is shooting just 29.1 percent from three. Despite the low numbers, the Gaels take more 3-pointers than just about anyone in the country, with more than 51 percent of their field goal attempts being from beyond the arc.
For UConn, a lot of 3-point attempts certainly gives Iona a chance at an upset, but if the Gaels shoot like they usually do, rebounding will be paramount. If the Huskies can keep Agee and guard Isaiah Washington off the boards, UConn should control the game on both ends.
While Iona hasn’t faced much competition yet this year, the Gaels do a good job at blocking shots, ranking 41st in the country with a block percentage of 14 percent, led by Agee and Dylan van Eyck. While UConn’s size should negate some of Iona’s shot-blocking ability, it will be a big test for Alterique Gilbert — who struggled finishing at the rim against Xavier before improving against Miami and Maine — to continue to be an efficient scorer at the rim.
Wednesday’s matchup will also mark the Gampel Pavilion debut for James Bouknight, who sat out the Huskies’ games against Sacred Heart and Florida due to suspension before bursting out in the Charleston Classic. In three games, the freshman is averaging 13.8 points per game and has the second highest offensive rating on the team (132.4) behind Brendan Adams (133.7). He’s already shown flashes of why he was a highly-touted recruit in high school and should get a warm welcome in Storrs for his Gampel debut.
Prediction: Agee and Crawford give the Huskies some problems, but UConn’s depth and talent allows them to win 74-64.
How to watch
Where: Gampel Pavilion - Storrs, Connecticut
When: 7 p.m. ET
Radio: UConn IMG Radio Network