After suffering back to back losses against St. John’s and Creighton, the UConn men’s basketball team snapped their two game skid with a decisive 63-51 win over Butler. Here are some takeaways from the Huskies’ eighth win of the 2020-21 season.
Tyrese Martin puts the question to bed
Ryan Goodman: Who can we consistently rely on for offensive output without Bouk? At this point, 11 games into the season and five game without James Bouknight, this much is clear. Martin’s full offensive ability was on display in this one, finishing drives and hitting tough hanging floaters as well as dribble pull-up 3-pointers. The shot at the end of the half helped cement it for me. After receiving an outlet pass from Sanogo, Martin slowed down the offense, realizing he didn’t have numbers. He then crossed over at the top of the key and exploded towards the basket, hanging in the air for a couple of seconds before scoring over Butler guard Jair Bolden as time expired. It’s just tough to see anyone else on this team making a play like that right now.
Martin is clearly the top option for the Huskies without Bouknight, and the most trusted guy to go get a bucket when they need it. Martin has scored in double figures in five straight, including three games with 15 or more points.
Giving Sanogo the freshman 15
Patrick Martin: In the last three games, there’s been a concentrated effort to feed freshman Adama Sanogo in the post. Since almost joining Club Trillion against DePaul, Sanogo has averaged nine field goal attempts a game, resulting in 11 points and five rebounds per game. The kid’s footwork is light years beyond what a freshman big’s should be, and his touch with both hands is a thing a beauty. He’s quickly becoming a matchup nightmare, and you can already envision the offense being run through him in the coming years.
Establishing the post has a similar spacing effect as when Tyler Polley is hitting from three. Defenses have to aggressively help and sag into lanes. As players get pulled into Sanogo’s orbit, all it takes is quick ball movement —which UConn encouragingly showed a lot of vs. Butler — to find an open man. Of course, he’s a freshman. He will disappear for stretches or even entire games. But that’s where a snarling Josh Carlton waiting to reclaim his starting spot can step up. If the two of them continue to take turns setting the tone in the post, it’s going to really balance out UConn’s offensive schemes when Bouknight returns.
Isaiah Whaley or Dikembe Mutombo?
Ryan: The senior forward is really making a compelling case for Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Whaley is tied for the conference lead in blocks per game with 2.8, and exploded for a monster seven-block performance in the Butler game — he seems to be unlocking his true potential on the defensive end of the floor. Yes, he still struggles to finish around the rim, could have a more consistent mid-range game, and always seems to take every shot like there’s 1 second left on the shot clock, but he is the defensive anchor of this team. Whaley can virtually guard all five positions on the floor, which is so valuable in modern college basketball where teams will switch things up more often than not and trot out four or five guards. If he is able to slow down his movements on the offensive end and settle into the game more, he could really help us space the floor and help get some of the other guys going (i.e. Jalen Gaffney who hit two 3-pointers against Butler).
Keeping a foot on the gas
Ryan: If you have followed UConn men’s basketball closely the past few years, you have most likely heard this phrase being used, but regarding the team’s inability to do so. In the recent past, the Huskies have had a problem of allowing teams to climb back in games after they had built fairly sizable leads because they “took their foot off the gas.” Well, they did a great job keeping their feet firmly pressed on the accelerator against Butler.
After Tyler Polley made a sweet mid-range pull up jumper to put the Huskies in front 10-8 with 13:18 remaining in the first half, Butler never led again. In fact, after UConn ballooned the lead to 12 late in the first half off of a Jalen Gaffney 3-pointer, they never let Butler get within ten points the rest of the game. This is going to be a major key for the Huskies in their new conference, as teams will be much more apt at scraping their way back into games with the increased overall talent level, as well as the coaching pedigree, in the Big East.
Boy am I glad we’re back in the Big East
Martin: I finally decided on an analogy to UConn returning to the Big East. But, it’s only for soccer fans, so skip these next two paragraphs if you’re not a fan of the beautiful game.
Going from the AAC to the Big East is like going from Ligue 1 to the English Premier League. Paris Saint-Germain (Houston) can go toe-to-toe with anyone, but after that it sort of depends on the year. After that, Cincinnati and Memphis are just a bunch of Monaco’s, Marseille’s and Lyon’s. Good solid clubs, but not touching the elite.
Further down Ligue 1’s table, clubs like Nimes and Dijon are the AAC’s East Carolina and Tulane. Those teams couldn’t hold a candle to the EPL’s cellar of Fulham or West Brom.
UConn has two season sweeps so far against teams likely headed for the bottom half of the Big East. But instead of blowing out a team in the dregs of the American, the bottom half of the Big East still means a very respectable KenPom rating.
Here’s the bottom five in the Big East currently, with their KenPom in parenthesis.
Georgetown (111), DePaul (93), Butler (86), and St. John’s (84).
Aaaand hold on to something, because here comes the bottom four in the AAC:
Tulane (202), East Carolina (149), Temple (132), and South Florida (103).
The beauty of re-joining was replacing games like East Carolina with ones like the Butler game we just watched. There’s a season-altering difference between dropping games to St. John’s compared to dropping games to Tulane. And so far, it appears that the rising tide has already lifted UConn’s boat.