How to watch
When: 7 p.m. Eastern
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Line: UConn -1, O/U 143
KenPom Predicted Score: USC 72, UConn 71
After a positive COVID-19 test early in November, two games and two wins against local mid-major challengers, and a large amount of consternation regarding practice time, we only know marginally more about this UConn team than we did before the season started. That all could change this weekend, as UConn enters the preseason
tournament ahem showcase bubble generously provided by the Mohegan Tribe to face power conference opponents USC and North Carolina State.
In their season opener against Central Connecticut State, UConn shook off rust in the first half to cruise to a dominant 102-75 victory, on the back of James Bouknight’s 17-point, eight-rebound, three-steal “I’m back” announcement. They also received contribution from newly-eligible transfer RJ Cole (17 points, six assists), Tyler Polley returning from an ACL injury (14 points, seven rebounds) and freshman Adama Sanogo’s eight points and seven boards in 17 minutes.
Things got a little uglier a few days later against Hartford, as out-of-control foul trouble saw UConn stretch to a 69-57 win over the Hawks. Bouknight again led the team with 18 points and four rebounds, but big man Isaiah Whaley was the sneaky star of the night, filling up the stat sheet with 10 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and five blocks. Jalen Gaffney also had his best game of the young season, with 15 points, two assists, blocks and steals apiece.
USC, however, will prove to be a much bigger challenge. The Trojans are 3-0 on the season and are ranked No. 45 in KenPom. They were forced into overtime against Cal Baptist in their first game of the year, no doubt suffering from the lack-of-practice jitters plaguing so many college programs around the country, but bounced back to beat Montana handily and blast BYU 79-53 in their first game inside the Mohegan bubble.
USC is led by brothers Isaiah and Evan Mobley, the former a sophomore and the latter a true freshman. Evan is the higher-rated of the two, projected to be a high-lottery pick in the 2021 draft, and he’s showed off his diverse set of skills early on in this young season. He leads the team with 16.3 points per game, adding to that 9.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game, respectively. Isaiah crashes the glass at an even higher rate, averaging a 10.3-point, 11.3-rebound double-double. The Trojans’ leading guards include Rice transfer Drew Peterson (14.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game) and Santa Clara transfer Tahj Eddy (12.7 points, 3.3 assists per game).
What to watch for
When UConn has the ball
How will UConn’s parade of talented big men deal with a future lottery pick? Evan and Isaiah Mobley have a combined 14-foot, 9-inch wingspan, and as a tandem represent a huge challenge for UConn’s big men to work against. Isaiah Whaley and Adama Sanogo have barely had to face forwards over 6-foot-10 so far this season, so this Thursday figures to be a trial by fire.
Similarly, we’ll find out if Bouknight can keep up his torrid start to the season. I’m not too worried about this one, but a power conference backcourt is similarly a bigger challenge than Hartford and Central, where he basically got whatever he wanted.
When USC has the ball
Can UConn avoid foul trouble? The referees gave UConn players (and by extension their fans) fits on Friday against Hartford. Bouknight fouled out, Cole and Polley were close to it with four apiece, and Jalen Gaffney and Brendan Adams both spent time on the bench with three. Will almost an entire week of Dan Hurley hollering in practice be enough for the Huskies to clean it up on defense, or will the Mobley brothers spend more time at the free throw line than on the bench?
Conversely, the few questions around Evan Mobley as a prospect revolve around how he will handle the physicality that comes with playing center in the NBA — he is only 210 pounds at 7-feet tall. How will he fare when he posts up Sanogo and gets an elbow to the chest with some force behind it? Probably nothing, but it’s fun to think about.
USC is UConn’s first real test of the season, but the Trojans haven’t run across any team like the Huskies either. If I had to guess, this will be a low-scoring game with big man defense flourishing, but with UConn eventually coming out on top.
UConn 63, USC 60