The Battle 4 Atlantis is here, and we’re about to find out if the UConn men’s basketball team is for real.
The no. 22 Huskies have coasted through four cupcakes to start their season, and while they deserve kudos for the manner in which they’ve blown out opponents — by an average margin of 40.8 points — we can’t make any grand declarations.
That changes Wednesday when UConn takes on Auburn in its first non-conference, top-25 matchup since 2016-2017. After Auburn, the next game should be a tough one as well.
Here’s a quick look at the Huskies’ first opponent and the top half of the bracket.
UConn will be looking to make it two straight wins over Auburn this week, the week after earning the commitment of highly-touted recruit Stephon Castle. This contest will take place on the court, at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN.
The two teams last faced off in 2017, an 89-64 drubbing during the final year of the Kevin Ollie era. The Tigers are no. 19 in the latest AP poll, the fourth-highest SEC school. Head coach Bruce Pearl has been impressive in his seven years at the helm, implementing the same frenetic style and fast-paced schemes that made his Tennessee teams a nightmare.
Auburn is top-40 in KenPom offensive and defensive efficiency, but like UConn, hasn’t faced much of a test this year so far. Their three wins over Morehead State, Louisiana-Monroe, and South Florida, have a collective KenPom ranking of 198, a little better than UConn’s four-team KenPom average of 319, but not anything too challenging.
That’s what makes the game so enticing: both teams are looking good and looking to prove their legitimacy as contenders.
It will be an especially intriguing test for UConn’s vaunted frontcourt, with the Tigers anchored by 6’11 freshman Jabari Smith and 7-1 North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler.
Smith, a top-10 recruit, is vaulting up 2022 NBA mock draft boards and could be the top overall pick in next year's draft—it’s rare to find a player that leads the team in rebounds and three-point attempts. Kessler’s size will be something Adama Sanogo and company have not yet faced.
UConn’s backcourt will have its hands full too, with 5’11 Eastern Kentucky transfer Wendell Green and 6’0 slasher K.D. Johnson, a transfer from Georgia. The former is the team’s table-setter and lead defensive disruptor, and the latter is the team’s leading scorer (15 ppg).
The Tigers played out last year with a self-imposed postseason ban. Pearl’s teams block shots, run, and attack downhill at an elite rate. They’ve been top-30 nationally in block rate for five straight years, and want to turn games into a track meet. The number of threes they take borders on absurd; 27.3 per game thus far this season.
Auburn is also potentially just as deep as UConn—Pearl told 247Sports: “we are playing 10 or 11 guys right now and it should help us in game two and game three. Depth is a good thing to have and that’s a strength of ours.”
A deep, frontcourt-laden team that wants to get out in the open court? The Huskies will be looking in the mirror on Wednesday. Hitting threes, containing Smith, and taking care of the ball will go a long way in ensuring UConn passes its first real test.
If the Huskies win, they’ll play the winner of Michigan State and Loyola-Chicago.
The Spartans won the last matchup in 2017-2018, a 20-point drubbing, also back in the Kevin Ollie era. But UConn won a couple of big ones before that, including the 2014 Elite Eight at Madison Square Garden.
Michigan State is 3-1 and ranked 20th in KenPom, having dispatched Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Butler after dropping their first game to no. 4 Kansas. Senior forward Gabe Brown leads Sparty in scoring (14ppg), while junior seven-footer Marcus Bingham Jr and freshman Max Christie join him in double figures. Elder statesmen Joey Hauser is leading the team in rebounds.
Tom Izzo is one of those coaches that molds his team to his personnel each year. But the one constant is defense; MSU has held three of its opponents below 60 points this season, ranking first in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense and fourth nationally in the KenPom Defensive Ratings. The 6’6 Brown is a big, physical wing, and Hauser is adept at initiating offense from the post.
The Spartans received votes in the preseason AP Top 25 ballot, but the Kansas loss dropped them off the radar a little. The Big 10 hasn’t necessarily blown the doors off of the season so far, but a non-conference win against Michigan State will almost always be a feather in UConn’s cap come March.
Porter Moser may be in Oklahoma and Cam Kurtwig is overseas collecting checks but the team passed on to 30-year-old head coach Drew Valentine shouldn’t see much falloff from last year’s Sweet 16 run. The Ramblers are 33rd in KenPom and 4-0 this year, with wins over Coppin State, Florida Gulf Coast, Chicago State, and UIC. Their 103-45 destruction of Coppin State should raise eyebrows considering UConn’s 89-54 dismantling of the Eagles, as well as the fact they’re only one of two mid-majors in the AP Top 25 poll (receiving votes.)
The Ramblers return four starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team, including senior forward Aher Uguak. Leading Loyola Chicago in scoring is 6’7 Princeton grad transfer Ryan Schwieger, who averages close to 15 points per game. The Ramblers are deep and experienced; guard Lucas Williamson is the team’s engine, while five of Loyola-Chicago’s top-five scorers are super seniors. Expect mini-Auburn in terms of playing style: the Ramblers hoist almost 12 threes a game.
‘Three-and-D’ is the calling card of every team UConn could face its first two games down in the Bahamas. UConn has defense in spades; they’re holding opponents to 33.0% overall and 24.4% from beyond the arc, while scoring 122 points off 89 turnovers. The surprise has been their respectable .393 three-point percentage. If that percentage proves to be a mirage against loaded competition, UConn could come crashing back down to earth.
If not, the Huskies might have something special on their hands, and Atlantis will be the place remembered as where they put the nation on notice.