The No. 17 UConn men’s basketball team has had quite the stressful week for a team that’s still 7-1. First, the Huskies had to grind out an ugly win against Maryland- Eastern Shore on Tuesday. Then they received some less-than-ideal injury news on Adama Sanogo and Tyrese Martin. Both key cogs are out for a what will likely be a month with abdominal and wrist injuries, respectively. But the show goes on, and UConn takes on Grambling State on Saturday at 4 p.m.
When: 4 p.m. Eastern
Where: Gampel Pavilion
Radio: UConn Sports Network
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 82, Grambling State 55
The Tigers are 3-5 on the year and sit No. 329 in KenPom, but that doesn’t mean anything after Tuesday’s tilt. Statistically, Grambling State checks in right now as a middle of the road team in the SWAC, but they’ve played quite the rigorous schedule. Steep losses to the likes of New Mexico, Texas Tech, Grand Canyon, and Iowa State probably skew their early-season stats. Their only Division I win has come against Morgan State, but Blue Ribbon did project the Tigers to come in third in the conference’s west Division, and they’ve also finished .500 or better in their last four years.
UConn, meanwhile, remains in the top 40 in KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency, but those numbers took a hit after Tuesday.
When UConn has the ball
All eyes will be on the Husky frontcourt, where their supposed depth will be tested. With Sanogo out, UConn loses its lone back-to-the-basket presence and an orbit that gave RJ Cole and company balance to operate. And sans Martin, UConn is down its top rebounder and most physical guard.
This is gut-check time for Akok Akok, who has had an uneven start to his junior season. The 6-foot-9 three-and-D hybrid is 5-9 from 3-point range this season, but put up three nothing burgers in just 30 minutes down in the Bahamas. If he can start to produce off the bounce or at least stretch the court on the offensive end, UConn will have sharpened another weapon for March.
With no Sanogo, look for UConn to go four or maybe even five-out now to open up driving lanes and maintain spacing. Don’t be surprised if Hurley also trots out some small-ball lineups too, with Tyler Polley seeing time at the four. Cole has been UConn’s most consistent offensive threat, and he’ll be asked to do even more now in December.
Just like against Maryland- Eastern Shore, UConn is bigger and more talented at every position. If the Huskies take care of business, it hopefully means they get to see what highly-touted freshmen Samson Johnson and Rahsool Diggins can do. In a way, this makes tomorrow exciting; tomorrow could be a coming-out party for a future star. Both have been glued to the bench due to the glut of talent in front of them. Seldom-used Richie Springs could also be a factor.
Akok, Samson Johnson will have to step up. Hawkins, too. Diggins will get first-half minutes, per Hurley.— David Borges (@DaveBorges) December 3, 2021
When Grambling State has the ball
Not much should change for this game even with Sanogo and Martin out. We know the new frontcourt pairing of Akok and Whaley can protect the rim at an elite level, and Grambling State’s bigs shouldn’t bother their thinner frames. What should also help UConn is that the Tigers play at a faster pace than Maryland-Eastern Shore (KenPom No. 154 in tempo, compared to Maryland- Eastern Shore’s No. 280). Hurley remarked after the Maryland- Eastern Shore game he did not get his team properly prepared. After Tuesday’s close shave, expect the ball pressure and defensive intensity to be ratcheted up in Gampel.
Cole will be tasked with slowing down 6-foot-1 graduate student Danya Kingsby, who leads Grambling State with 12 points per game. The most difficult matchup could be who guards Cameron Christon, a 6-foot-6 wing who shoots 42.0 percent from three. AJ Taylor, meanwhile, is second in the SWAC with 1.5 blocks per game.
There was palpable frustration among UConn fans after the win over Maryland- Eastern Shore. While the Huskies got the win, the team’s flaws are becoming apparent, and many were clamoring for Hurley to utilize his depth more. That wish has been granted, and we’ll see the results starting tomorrow.
Hurley: "A lot of people weren’t happy with their role, wanted more minutes. Well, here you go. Go produce.”— David Borges (@DaveBorges) December 3, 2021