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Preview: UConn men’s basketball vs. No. 9 Creighton | Dec. 20, 12 p.m., FS1

The Huskies return to action with a major test in their Big East opener.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

How to watch

When: 12 p.m. Eastern


Radio: UConn Sports Network

Line: Creighton -1.5, O/U 148.5

KenPom Predicted Score: Creighton 74, UConn 73

After years of waiting (and a few extra weeks due to a positive COVID-19 test within the program), UConn is finally making its return to the Big East. In addition to the new decals on the floor and banners up at Gampel, Husky fans can look forward to seeing quality competition on a nightly basis in conference play. Sunday’s opponent is a good example.

Creighton is one of the top teams in the conference. The Bluejays currently rank ninth in the country in the AP poll, 15th overall in KenPom, and took a talented Kansas team down to the wire in a 73-72 defeat earlier this season.

While Villanova is the favorite to win the Big East, Creighton has a shot as well. The Bluejays (5-2 overall) are already 1-1 in conference play with a win over St. John’s and a loss to Marquette this past week. While they’re a KenPom darling, they have just one win against the top-100 in KenPom, but played Kansas and Marquette incredibly close. The Bluejays are solid defensively but really thrive on the offensive end with one of the most efficient offenses in all of college basketball.

Senior wing Denzel Mahoney leads the Bluejays offense in scoring with 16.2 points per game, but the focal point of the offense is point guard Marcus Zegarowski. The 6-foot-2 junior averages 5.7 assists per game and isn't afraid to score on his own either. He’s averaging 14.7 points per game this year and is one of three Creighton players shooting over 40 percent from the 3-point line on at least 40 attempts, joining Mahoney and spot-shooter Mitch Ballock.

Mahoney and Zegarowski lead the way for head coach Greg McDermott and the Bluejays, but Creighton has more firepower - including enough size to compete against nearly any high-major team. While 6-foot-7 big man Christian Bishop usually starts at center and leads the team with six rebounds per game, McDermott has a talented freshman in 7-footer Ryan Kalkbrenner, a solid shot-blocker who is fresh off a 15-point, five-rebound performance against the Red Storm. After him, 6-foot-11 junior Jacob Epperson has held his own in limited minutes, leading the team in block percentage and joining Kalbrenner as a force on the offensive glass.

Even though this Creighton team has struggled against quality competition early on this season, the duo of Mahoney and Zegarowski will usually be enough to keep the Bluejays competitive with just about anyone. Throw in the addition of Duke transfer Alex O’Connell, who was recently declared eligible, and the Creighton backcourt may be one of the deepest in the conference. With an elite offense and a defense that is good enough to get the job done, the Bluejays are one of the toughest teams Dan Hurley and the Huskies have faced since he took over at UConn in 2018.

What to watch for

When UConn has the ball

The Huskies have been practicing this past week, but haven’t played a game in over two weeks. Will there be rust, especially when shooting from deep or if this game turns into a track meet? After a slow start to the season, Josh Carlton put together arguably the best performance of his career with nine points and 11 boards against one of this year’s top NBA prospects in USC’s Evan Mobley. Can Carlton keep things rolling, even after the delay? Or we will see another breakout game from freshman Adama Sanogo, who shined against Hartford and CCSU but struggled a bit against the Trojans? Lastly, R.J. Cole struggled against USC — his first quality opponent as a UConn player. Will he bounce back and be the Robin to James Bouknight’s Batman? The Huskies need a consistent second scorer to be a Big East contender this year, and Cole could cement himself as that with a bounce-back performance against a top-10 team.

When Creighton has the ball

Will Zegarowski and Mahoney pick apart a UConn defense that has been solid this season, but could be a step slow due to missing multiple practices? We have seen the Huskies keep elite frontcourt talent like the Mobley brothers in check, but the backcourt hasn’t been tested as much yet. How does this team handle Zegarowski and a bigger guard/wing in Mahoney without a stopper like Christian Vital? Will Bouknight and Cole be able to step up on the other end, or could this be another big performance for URI transfer Tyrese Martin, who has the size to match up well with Mahoney?

Lastly, the Bluejays aren't necessarily gunners from deep, but Zegarowski, Mahoney, and Ballock are all great shooters from beyond the arc. A Hurley defensive hallmark is to try and force opponents from taking threes, as they ranked 11th in 3-point attempts per field goal attempt last year and rank 80th this year. Can Hurley’s scheme help keep this talented offense — may be the best they’ll face this season — at bay given everything the team has gone through these past few weeks?

Final prediction

The Bluejays have all of the stats to be a very good team, but haven’t really shown that yet with losses to their only competition so far in KenPom’s top 50. On Sunday, they catch an up-and-coming UConn team at the right time, after a multi-week layoff due to COVID-19, and Zegarowski and Mahoney are too much to overcome, doing most of their damage from the 3-point line. The Huskies hang around on talent alone, but can’t shake off the rust fast enough to get past Creighton. They’ll have a much better chance at a win next time around.

No. 9 Creighton 82, UConn 74