After a brief hiatus, UConn men’s basketball is back where it belongs — in the world’s most famous arena for the Big East Tournament. With Villanova bitten by the injury bug and Creighton dealing with issues off the court, the surging Huskies are quickly becoming a trendy pick to win the conference in their first year back. With the tournament getting underway on Wednesday, our men’s basketball staff writers got together to predict what might unfold in New York City over the next few days.
Most important player
Ryan Goodman: The obvious answer is Bouknight but I’m not going to go that route. Yes, UConn will virtually go as far as Bouknight takes them, but I think he will get his and then some so it’s not a legitimate worry. I’m going to go with Sanogo here, who has been playing like an all-conference big man as of late. If he can continue to provide the Huskies with a legitimate anchor down low - especially on offense because the defense will be there - good luck trying to stop UConn.
Patrick Martin: I was torn between RJ Cole and Isaiah Whaley, but I’m going to go with the Wrench. It looks like the light switch has come on for Jalen Gaffney, which bolsters UConn’s backcourt depth and will give Cole some help. With Akok Akok’s health questionable, that leaves only Josh Carlton to back up two spots in Sanogo and Whaley, both of which are prone to silly fouls. You have to brace for Sanogo to commit some freshman mistakes in postseason play, which puts the onus on Whaley to play smart post defense even more.
Dan Madigan: To me, it has to be Cole, who’s elevated his level of play as of late and brought this whole Huskies team with him. Once he gets going, he can score in bunches, and usually does a decent job of drawing contact and getting to the foul line. Even when he isn’t scoring much like in the regular-season finale against Georgetown, teams still have to respect his range and it allows him to blow by defenders and distribute — he had eight assists against the Hoyas. No matter what, Bouknight will get his buckets. But if Cole can score right along with him, this team is dangerous.
Mike Mavredakis: While my first answer was R.J. Cole, because of the way he’s found a more consistent supporting role, I am going to go with Tyrese Martin. Cole has done just that, found his role as a distributor and second-scorer when UConn needs it. Martin has cooled off as of late as UConn has ascended into a Big East title contender. If he can find his rhythm once again, on top of what UConn is already doing, there’s no stopping them.
Goodman: Jalen Gaffney. I’d like to know who put spring implants into Gaffney’s feet because I have never seen the bounce he has put on display over the past two games, delivering two highlight-reel hammer dunks. Besides this, he had a complete game in the most recent matchup against Georgetown, going 6-for-6 from the field and 3-for-3 from behind the arc en route to 15 points. Gaffney hasn’t had the sophomore jump that many thought he was going to have - which could be attributed to a number of reasons including the global pandemic that’s been especially difficult for student-athletes - but he has the ability. I think he will make a bigger splash at the Big East Tournament than he has overall this year.
Martin: Would love love love to be wrong here and have it be Akok Akok. His smile as UConn fought back at Xavier is arguably one of the seasons’ big turning points. But it looks like his health isn’t up to par yet, so I’m going to echo Ryan. When Gaffney was an incoming freshman, there was an article out there in which his high school coach compared his athleticism to Russell Westbrook. I allowed myself to run with those comparisons, which is of course unfair to Gaffney. But after seeing that flash explosive play, I finally understand what that coach meant.
Madigan: Since no one else took him, I’ll go ahead and roll with Tyler Polley, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year. He’s been up and down all season, but shot 40 percent (6-15) from deep in the final three games of the season. Plus, when he’s hot like he was in January, there truly might not be a better shooter in the country. Who says he doesn’t have another hot streak in him for March?
Mavredakis: This is tough considering how deep this team is. Everyone in the rotation typically does something on a given night. With that being said, I am going to go with Josh Carlton. This pick has a high bust potential, but he’s been better lately and I am ready to see him give one last run in his final few games for UConn.
Over/Under 49.5 points for James Bouknight in Big East Tournament
Goodman: Pound this over. If UConn gets to the Big East Championship, then this is a virtual lock. He’s averaging 20.2 points per game this season and something tells me that being back in New York under the lights of MSG will help Bouknight showcase his full array of talent this week.
Martin: Over to the moon! Every day that goes by Bouk is further away from his elbow surgery. The stage is set for him to be fully unleashed in postseason play.
Madigan: I too am going over. Even if UConn only plays two games, I think Bouknight goes off big time in one of them. He’s got to be pumped to play in Madison Square Garden.
Mavredakis: This question is just a referendum on how far we think they’re going to go in the tournament. In which case, the answer is the over. He averages 20 points per game, if they make it to the final he’ll blast past this. Even if they lose in the semis, there’s a good chance he could still put up 25 per game.
Ideal Big East Tournament Path
Goodman: DePaul, Creighton, and then Villanova. I know it’s very unlikely that Providence loses to DePaul in the first round, but it would be great for the Huskies to get a blowout win in their first game to get their confidence levels up (sorry not sorry DePaul) Also, guess who was UConn’s first opponent during the 2011 Big East tournament run that jump-started one of the greatest runs in NCAA history? Yep. It was DePaul. That is all.
Martin: Providence, Xavier, Villanova. It’s incredibly hard to beat any team — even DePaul — three times in a season, so I’d like to avoid that altogether. Even though Creighton is a mess, they still are uber-talented and a matchup nightmare. If the Musketeers — fighting tooth and nail to get off the bubble — get hot and knock them off, I wouldn’t be mad. On the other side of the bracket, avoiding any New York/New Jersey team would be great considering their familiarity with The Garden. Plus, overthrowing conference king Villanova to reclaim the Big East crown in UConn’s first year back would be such poetic justice and the purest form of a chef’s kiss.
Madigan: DePaul, Creighton, Villanova. I think this is both the most likely path for the Huskies and the best way to boost their NCAA tournament seed. I don’t see UConn having trouble with the Blue Demons, and think the Bluejays’ off-court issues are enough to distract them and give the Huskies the edge. As for Villanova, they’re banged up, but still a darn good team. UConn might not be able to beat them, but they should be able to make it interesting.
Mavredakis: DePaul, Xavier, St. John’s. Call me a cynic, but I think there’s an outside shot that Villanova gets bounced in the semis by St. John’s. They are a team that has mainly used their starters this season and now they have been forced to tap into their depth. That spells disaster, especially if they have an off shooting night. The Huskies beat Xavier just a few weeks ago and have already taken down DePaul twice this season.
Big East Tournament Prediction
Goodman: Quarters - Marquette over Villanova, Seton Hall over St. John’s, Creighton over Xavier, UConn over Providence. Semis - Seton Hall over Marquette, UConn over Creighton. The final game culminates in a 72-65 UConn win over Seton Hall, and the Huskies win the Big East Championship in their first year back in the conference. Villanova is now without two starting guards that combine for 26.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.6 assists. Creighton is not playing at their peak, making headlines for the wrong reasons, and I just don’t believe they are going to beat this UConn team for a third time this season. We shouldn’t sleep on Xavier, St. John’s, or Seton Hall, but the path is paved for Bouknight and Co. to take the title.
Martin: Quarters - Villanova dispatches Georgetown, the Johnnies finish off Seton Hall, the Muskies hold off Butler, and the good guys take care of Providence. Semis - UConn follows up their win over the Friars by holding off a frantic Xavier team and St. Johns’ style succumbs to Villanova’s substance. When UConn won the Big East title in 2011, I was in a hostel in Prague at 2:00 a.m., watching the game on a projector with a Louisville fan while drinking whiskey sours. A decade later, the Connecticut Huskies reclaim the Big East title, and we all party like it's 2011.
Madigan: I think this UConn team is hot enough and talented enough to make it to the title game Saturday night, likely against Villanova, but maybe against a surging St. John’s or Seton Hall team too. It really depends on the matchup, but I think UConn may come up just short after two late games on back-to-back nights.
Mavredakis: Creighton has been a tall task for UConn this season, but I think the Huskies will eke out a win in overtime. Then in the finals, who knows what could happen. If they match up against St. John’s, Seton Hall, or Villanova, they could be beaten. Final answer - finals loss to St. John’s.
Predicted NCAA tournament seed
Goodman: Of course this goes hand in hand with UConn’s performance in the Big East tournament, so going off of my prediction for that, I think we jump up to a 6 seed by Selection Sunday. Honestly, a five seed isn’t out of the question here as well. If we get to the championship game but lose, we will probably be a 7, but I have high hopes for this squad that appears to be peaking at the perfect time.
Martin: A comfy six seed is where I see it. For better or worse, the committee will still look on our rough Bouk-less stretch with a lot of weight. That’s the rub of the green, even with a title run. But as long as the Huskies can avoid a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the second round, the seeding shouldn’t matter much. With a healthy Bouknight and the rest of the team in form, there aren’t many teams out there that should scare UConn.
Madigan: If UConn wins the title game, I could see the Huskies getting seeded as high as No. 4, especially if they take down Creighton and Villanova on the way to their eighth conference tournament championship. If they make the title game but fall short, I still think they're a lock for a No. 6 seed. I truly think the committee will put much more weight on UConn's games with Bouknight than the ones without him and those games, combined with the Huskies’ recent performance, makes them much stronger than the No. 8/9/10 seed some bracketologists have them locked into.
Mavredakis: I think a Big East Tournament finals loss locks them into a No. 6 seed at the minimum as well, but I have a feeling some of the committee members could drink the Bouknight Kool-Aid and put them as high as a 4 seed. That could be wildly ambitious, however, considering they’ve taken losses to St. John’s and Creighton twice this season. Either way, Bouk the Huskies as a 6 seed.