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UConn men’s basketball 2021-22 prediction roundtable

The UConn Blog staff weighs in with some hot takes and predictions for the Huskies this season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Maryland at Connecticut Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

The start of men’s basketball season is almost here. The UConn Blog’s preview series has included a look at the season’s opponents as well as breakdowns of the position groups on the roster.

In this predictions roundtable, we make some guesses about the lineup and leading contributors for this season. Feel free to share your own thoughts and predictions in the comments.

Leading scorer

Tucker Warner: I’ll take the safe pick here and say R.J. Cole. He’s the leading scorer from last year among returning players, and he’ll have the ball in his hands often. I don’t think his issues with finishing at the rim be nearly as big of a problem this season, and given his reliability as an outside shooter, he’ll be one of only a handful of UConn players who scores at all three levels.

Shawn McGrath: I’m going to roll with Cole as well. He’s going to be the offensive facilitator and while he’s definitely not James Bouknight, he’ll be closer to playing that role than anyone else on the team. Combine that with his ability to shoot from the outside, and he’s likely to be the team’s leading scorer.

Dan Madigan: I think it’s Cole as well. He won’t have the same usage or output that Bouknight had last season, but he will almost certainly be the guy UConn relies on to get a bucket when he needs one. He’s carried teams offensively in the past during his time with Howard, and I think he’s ready to do it again, albeit in a much more balanced way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Huskies had four or five different players lead the team in scoring in a game this season.

Patrick Martin: Adama Sanogo. Hurley said the sophomore is their “best player,” and has placed an emphasis on establishing the post this year. If Isaiah Whaley and Akok Akok can show some outside shooting touch, it will open up plenty of space in the paint for Adama to cook.

Rebounds leader

Tucker: Tyrese Martin. The Huskies simply have too many big men who need minutes, so I don’t know if Adama Sanogo will get the playing time he needs to earn this title. Tyrese Martin will though, and he’s shown a knack for tracking down the ball after a quality box-out from the perimeter.

Shawn: Adama Sanogo. I think he’ll be spending a lot of time in the middle for the Huskies and is their biggest body. Minutes and size should equal rebounds as Sanogo looks to build on his excellent freshman season.

Madigan: I just can’t see any basketball scenario where Isaiah Whaley will be on the bench for an extended period of time. I think he’s going to be an absolute force on both ends this year and will clean up on the glass to be the Huskies’ team leader.

Martin: It wouldn’t be surprising to see Whaley and Sanogo eat into each other’s rebounding totals. When you consider his offensive rebounding chops (first in the Big East last year), Martin looks poised to repeat as the Huskies’ rebounding leader.

Assists Leader

Tucker: At this point, I think the only sure thing in the Huskies’ starting lineup is that Cole will be the point guard. He takes care of the ball better than many might think, last year dishing out 99 dimes with only 40 turnovers, an excellent 2.47 ratio. He’ll repeat this title unless he gets hurt.

Shawn: Cole. If he’s going to be the starting point guard he’s got the best chance on a team that will probably rotate a bit.

Madigan: Cole may be the point guard, but I think Andre Jackson is the best pure passer on this team. He finished second to Cole in assist percentage, and if he takes a leap in terms of playing time, might challenge Cole for the assist crown. I think with this year’s team being more balanced, Cole may not be as ball dominant, and there may be stretches where the offense runs best with the ball in Jackson’s hands.

Martin: Cole, for all the reasons above. But I’ll go on the record and say Jackson will have the most “wow” assists on the year.

Team MVP

Tucker: It’s not often that a college team gets to bring back a player who already won the conference defensive player of the year award during his senior season. Combined with a much-improved offensive arsenal, this could be the year that Isaiah Whaley becomes the Huskies’ best player.

Shawn: Andre Jackson. He showed flashes and battled injuries in an already difficult freshman year. With increased minutes, a normal offseason, and presumed health, the freaky athletic forward will take a big jump in his sophomore year and show why he was so highly regarded coming out of high school.

Madigan: I’m optimistic for Akok Akok. Before his Achilles injury as a freshman, he was a dominant defensive force, a solid rebounder, and an improving offensive player with legit shooting range. After Hurley let Akok ease back into things last season, he still had flashes of excellence, such as scoring seven points in 10 minutes to help UConn beat Xavier last season. If Akok can play extended minutes from the start, I don’t know if there’s a better defensive duo in the country than Akok and Whaley. His return and production on both ends might be a difference-maker for the Huskies.

Martin: Curse you, Madigan! I thought I was going to be slick and sneak Akok Akok in here. Instead, I’ll double down and tout Sanogo again. I think he has the potential to have a Kofi Cockburn-level impact on college hoops in 2021-22. People forget he wasn’t even supposed to be a freshman last year!

Opening Night Starting Five

Tucker: This may not be exactly what I want, but if I’m predicting what Dan Hurley will roll out on the floor, I’d say the five would be R.J. Cole, Andre Jackson, Tyrese Martin, Isaiah Whaley, and Adama Sanogo.

Shawn: I actually agree with Tucker. I feel like that’s a logical starting five and when I try to take one out, I’m not sure who would make more sense to play, even if guys like Tyler Polley and Jalen Gaffney will also get minutes.

Madigan: I’m doubling down on Akok being MVP here. I still believe he’s one of the most talented players on this team and that he’s fully healthy. Cole, Martin, Akok, Whaley, and Sanogo. Jackson and Polley are the first two off the bench.

Martin: Cole, Martin, Polley, Whaley, Sanogo. Roll with experience, Polley’s shooting, and a potentially dangerous inside-out combo with Cole and Sanogo. Then you’ve got Jackson, Akok, and Gaffney off the bench, and a less-pressurized chance for Jordan Hawkins to take control of that second unit.

Best Win

Tucker: Michigan State in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals. The Spartans will have a slow start before figuring it out in time for a Big Ten run, and the Huskies win over an eventual 4-seed will bolster their tournament resume come Selection Sunday.

Shawn: St. Bonaventure in the Never Forget Tribute Classic. It’s a neutral site game on a big UConn day, with the women’s team playing UCLA in the first half of the doubleheader. The Bonnies are likely to have a strong record in the Atlantic 10 and as they continue to win conference games, this will look better and better.

Madigan: Home against Villanova, Feb. 22. Villanova will be great again this season, but I think UConn finally has both the talent and depth to hang with the Wildcats this year. I don’t know if the Huskies will be able to take down Nova on the road earlier in the season, but I like UConn’s chances late in the season, especially in front of what should be a raucous XL Center crowd.

Martin: I think Xavier is going to be UConn’s prime competition for second place in the Big East. So that away tilt on Dec. 28 in Cincinnati could be season-altering. A road dub against a potentially top-25 team already under your belt before the calendar turns to 2022? You can breathe a little easier in January and February with that win.

Big East finish/Pick Big East Champion

Tucker: Villanova is ultimately a steadier team with fewer holes, so I think the Wildcats will finish first in the Big East standings this season, followed closely by UConn at second. This year, there’s a sizable gap between the top two teams in the conference and everyone else.

Shawn: Villanova is ahead of the rest of the Big East and will win the regular-season title by a couple of games, but UConn is also ahead of the rest of the league and will finish second, a few games in front of Xavier, Seton Hall and St. John’s, the remaining NCAA Tournament contenders.

Madigan: UConn will be in the mix for both the regular season crown and the conference tournament title this season, but Nova is still the team to beat. I think UConn, Xavier, and St. John’s will be in the mix for the regular season title, but Nova will likely come out on top. The Huskies’ best chance for a Big East title will likely be in front of a very pro-UConn crowd for the Big East Tournament — something they certainly have the talent to win this year.

Martin: It’s Villanova’s conference for one more year. But besides that, UConn dunks Xavier in Skyline Chili, defends the Garden vs. St. John’s, and keeps the rest of the contenders at bay.

Postseason fate

Tucker: The Huskies get a convincing win as a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but run into bad luck against a 3-seed that probably could’ve been a 2, and lose a close one in the second round.

Shawn: This is definitely an NCAA Tournament team that could make the second weekend. They should get a win in the first round, but as a five-to-seven seed, that next game may be a tough one.

Madigan: I think this team could easily reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, and making the NCAA tournament and winning one game should be the floor barring any injuries. A five or six seed and at least one tournament win makes this a successful season, and anything on top of that is gravy.

Martin: I foresee a classic, old-school duel at the Garden vs. UConn and Villanova for the conference title. AARP candidate Collin Gillespie flops on a charge, RJ Cole fouls out, and the Wildcats edge the Huskies. Isaiah Whaley’s tearful post-game comments galvanize the team and they storm to the Sweet 16. Whaley and Polley leave Storrs with closure, bringing UConn officially “back.” UConn enters 2022-2023 a top 15 team.