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UConn men’s basketball 2021-22 opponent preview: The buy games

The Huskies get the 2021-22 season rolling with some easy non-conference opportunities.

NCAA Basketball: Coppin State at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball season is upon us. It is officially less than two weeks until UConn men’s basketball gets its season rolling inside Gampel Pavilion on Nov. 9, when CCSU travels to Storrs to kick off the season. Though there are a few potential important non-conference contests for Dan Hurley’s crew, including Auburn, West Virginia and St. Bonaventure, all of which are away from home, the Huskies will have their fair share of buy games to make adjustments and build chemistry against weaker opponents.

Only one of these teams, LIU, is ranked in the top 300 according to Ken Pomeroy, while three more are slotted in the bottom 20 of the 358 programs that play Division I college basketball. These schools will likely finish in the bottom of their low-major conferences and represent an opportunity for UConn to work out the kinks and gain positive momentum for the bigger games later in the season.

CCSU (Nov. 9, Gampel Pavilion, 6:30 p.m.)

UConn will open the 2021-22 season on November 9 at 6:30 p.m. against CCSU inside Gampel Pavilion. The Blue Devils have a new head coach, in Patrick Sellers, after UConn grad Donyell Marshall was not brought back to coach another season. He graduated from CCSU in 1991 and was hired as a first-time head coach in May after spending the previous two seasons as an assistant at Fairfield. Sellers also spent 2004-2010 as an assistant at UConn, including four seasons as the associate head coach under Jim Calhoun.

The Blue Devils are No. 342 in KenPom’s preseason rankings and finished 5-16 in 2020-21, including a 102-75 victory for the Huskies to open up both teams’ COVID-19-shortened seasons. Half of the team’s 16 rostered players are freshmen, while Sellers also brought in two transfers.

Junior guard Nigel Scantlebury is likely to be a fixture of CCSU’s offense, as he led the team last season in minutes per game and averaged 8.3 points and 4.0 assists per game, the latter of which also led the team. Tre Mitchell led returners in points per game, at 9.4.

UConn should be able to take advantage of CCSU’s lack of size, as just two players stand above 6-foot-8 and the heaviest player weighs 235 pounds. In contrast, UConn has six players standing 6-foot-9 or taller and Adama Sanogo weighs 240 pounds.

Coppin State (Nov. 13, XL Center, 12 p.m.)

Coppin State opens the slate at the XL Center when the Eagles arrive in Hartford on Nov. 13. Head coach Juan Dixon’s crew finished 9-13 on the season, including 8-4 in MEAC play. Ranked No. 351 in KenPom, Coppin State played at XL Center in the 2014-15 season and at Gampel Pavilion in the 2017-18 season. The Huskies are not the only Big East team that will match up against the Eagles, as they will also play DePaul on Nov. 10.

Coppin State struggled to shoot the ball, shooting just 62.2 percent from the line and 41.1 percent from the field as a team in 2020-21. Unfortunately for the Eagles, their top three scorers from last season have departed the program. Nendah Tarke is the team’s top returning scorer and put up 9.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.

Dixon has hit the transfer portal hard, as nine members out of the 14-man roster transferred into the program, including five from the junior college ranks. Continuing a trend that will be a constant through these previews, the Huskies will have a size advantage, as the heaviest player on the team weights 215 pounds.

LIU (Nov. 17, Gampel Pavilion, 6:30 p.m.)

With unquestionably the best mascot on UConn’s slate this season, the LIU Sharks will be welcomed into Gampel Pavilion on Nov. 17. The program was created for the 2019-20 season by the merger of the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds and the LIU Post Pioneers, the latter of which was a Division II member. Former UMass head coach Derek Kellogg mans the helm for the No. 259-ranked team according to KenPom.

The Sharks finished 9-9 last season, playing exclusively a Northeast Conference slate. Kellogg has some experience returning to Brooklyn, as Ty Flowers, a graduate student from Waterbury, Connecticut, led the team in scoring last season at 17.3 points per game. He also grabbed 8.1 boards per game and figures to be an important part of the equation. Hometown kid Eral Penn, who averaged a double-double at 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game last season, also returns to the fold. Four members of the Sharks are seniors or graduate students, while there are only three freshmen.

LIU last made the NCAA Tournament in 2018, as the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds, losing in the First Four to Radford. Dan Hurley, who shared a conference with the school as the head coach of crosstown Wagner, has never beat LIU, though the Huskies are 2-2 against LIU. They last played in 1978.

Binghamton (Nov. 20, XL Center, 12 p.m.)

Led by Levell Sanders, the Bearcats will be the Huskies’ final tuneup before the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving break. The two squads will clash at the XL Center on Nov. 20. The school has only one NCAA Tournament appearance, back in 2009. Ranked No. 315 by KenPom, Binghamton finished 4-14 last season, including a 4-10 record in the America East Conference.

Sanders will have experience on his roster, as he has just one freshman and only two players are in their sophomore year. Tyler Bertram, who put up 10.8 points per game, is the only returning scorer who averaged double-figures last year, while George Tinsley, was the team’s leading rebounder a season ago, grabbing 6.6 boards per contest.

UConn has never matched up against Binghamton. Interestingly enough, there are more international players (three) on the roster than players from New York (two). In a rare occurrence, the Huskies’ opponent will have the biggest player on the floor, as senior Yarden Willis stands 7-foot, 250 pounds. However, he was rarely used last season, getting just 5.1 minutes per game across seven contests.

Maryland-Eastern Shore (Nov. 30, XL Center, 7 p.m.)

KenPom expects Maryland-Eastern Shore to be the fourth-worst team in Division I this year, behind just Arkansas Pine Bluff, Chicago State and Mississippi Valley State. The Huskies’ first game after the Battle 4 Atlantis concludes, the Hawks will return to the site of when they last played UConn, XL Center, on Dec. 1. The Huskies are 2-0 against Maryland-Eastern Shore all time, including a 34-point victory in the 2012-13 season.

The Hawks did not play last season due to COVID-19, joining the Ivy League and MEAC conference-mate Bethune Cookman. The school finished 2019-20 with a 5-27 record, including 4-12 in MEAC play. They had already been eliminated from their conference tournament when the season was halted due to the pandemic.

Their roster features just two freshmen and 10 upperclassmen, with no sophomores. No returning players reached double figures in points last season, though Da’Shawn Phillip leads returning players with 7.4 points per game. He is also the team’s leading returning rebounder, grabbing 3.1 boards per contest as a guard.

Grambling State (Dec. 4, Gampel Pavilion, 4 p.m.)

At the conclusion of Dec. 4’s matchup with Grambling State at Gampel Pavilion, UConn will move into the meat of its nonconference schedule and then into Big East play. The Tigers are one of three HBCUs that the Huskies will match up against this season, doing so against Grambling State for the first time in program history.

The Tigers finished 12-12 in 2020-21, including 9-6 in SWAC play. Ranked No. 317 by KenPom headed into this season, Donte’ Jackson’s team has eight Division I transfers on its 16-man roster, joined by four additional transfers. Grambling State also brings plenty of height, with eight players standing 6-foot-6 or taller.

Cameron Christon was the only player to average double figures for his team last season and returns for his fifth-year senior season after averaging 13.7 points per gram and 5.2 rebounds per game, good for second team-wide. The leading rebounder was Terreon Randolph, who had an even 6.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.