After three games and three frenetic contests, two of which went into overtime, UConn men’s basketball has firmly placed itself on the national radar. The Huskies beat Auburn in double overtime to open the tournament before a close loss to Michigan State.
In their third game in three days, Dan Hurley’s squad outlasted VCU in a rock fight that also went into overtime.
Here are some thoughts following the Huskies’ first major tests of the season:
This is a tough team
Aman Kidwai: First and foremost, you have to pay respect to the grit, hustle, and toughness that is evident across the roster. UConn was tested in a variety of ways on and off the court and ended the week with two wins in overtime games and a loss that went down to the wire. Playing without Isaiah Whaley against Michigan State, Tyrese Martin and others stepped up to overcome early struggles and make it a competitive game. Those early struggles have been a problem, and there is much to fix, but these guys seem to have what it takes to be a Big East power and make a deep run in March.
Sanogo is for real
Aman: UConn hasn’t had a low-post scorer like Adama Sanogo in a long time. It’s awesome to see.
Madigan: Sanogo’s performance against Auburn is the best performance a UConn big has had in at least a decade (we’re not counting Amida Brimah’s 43-point game against Coppin State). Throughout this tournament, Sanogo displayed touch with both hands, comfort going either shoulder, and remained a monster on the boards while showing improvement as a shot blocker. He’s almost certainly one of the best players in the Big East.
There’s still room for improvement with him though, both as a collegiate player and a legit NBA prospect. While the offense hums along when Sanogo is hitting in the post, it stalled out quickly when he wasn’t, or when he drew double teams. As he draws more defensive pressure, he’ll need to be more aware of kicking out to open shooters/guards for open shots or to reset the offense. He also showed a little bit of a desire to stretch the floor — I think he took one 3-pointer this weekend — but will need to show he can hit from that range at a respectable clip to have a chance at the next level.
Jordan Hawkins is a potential star. But where are the other freshmen?
Aman: It is hard not to come away impressed and thinking about the potential that Hawkins has for his time at UConn. His ability to make plays and step into the game confidently are going to make him a valuable player off the bench for this year’s team.
Madigan: Hawkins is a stud, plain and simple. When Hurley was talking about Hawkins as he came back from an ankle injury, it reminded me so much of the way Hurley discussed James Bouknight before he made his freshman year debut in that year’s Thanksgiving tournament. Hawkins has the potential to be a similar type of scorer and has already forced his way into the rotation, and may compete for a starting spot soon enough.
As for Rahsool Diggins and Samson Johnson, neither have impressed much so far in limited roles, but I would have loved to see them get some more burn against Michigan State and VCU, especially when the offense was sputtering. Diggins showed some flashes as a distributor in his time this season, and I think his energy (and freshness) could have given the guards some much needed rest and injected some life into an offense that struggled for big stretches after the double overtime Auburn win.
Martin, Cole, and Whaley are rocks
Aman: What an incredibly unlikely nucleus of players leading this year’s pack: a Howard transfer, a Rhode Island transfer, and the lowest-profile recruit in the 2017 class, but here we are. These three guys are the life force of the team. If any of them were to get injured or even into foul trouble in a game, it would spell trouble. I like the depth of this year’s team, but it’s about more than skill. These guys are tough, they lead the team with character, and put their teammates in a position to succeed. UConn showed it could overcome a lot by playing Michigan State close without Whaley, but I hope they never have to play without him again.
Madigan: Cole and Martin may put up more points or have the ball in their hands more often, but Whaley is the heart and soul of this team. Even though he’s been nonexistent offensively at times this season, he used the Battle 4 Atlantis to reestablish himself as one of the top defenders in the country and brings relentless tenacity on the boards. His offense is starting to come around too — he went 3-3 from three against VCU, including some clutch shots late, to help the Huskies get the W. There’s a reason why UConn’s two wins were games where Whaley was on the floor — he does a little bit of everything.
Akok Akok is... ?
Madigan: Going to be just fine. While he wasn’t a factor at all offensively (zero points this tournament), he’s still an elite shot blocker who can hit open threes, crash the boards and run in transition. With Johnson not showing much so far, that’s still a role that needs to be filled on this team. I think Hawkins’ emergence has really messed with Hurley’s original rotation, and it’s something that has to get figured out as soon as possible. But with Sanogo playing well, Whaley being such a force defensively, and some matchups against bigger front courts, Akok’s time may be limited for certain games. But when there’s long, athletic teams that like to run on the schedule, he’ll get more burn and be a major factor.