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Takeaways from Dan Hurley’s pre-tournament press conference

UConn men’s basketball is back in the NCAA Tournament, but the bubble will make things very different this time around.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Creighton vs Connecticut Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been five years since UConn last made the NCAA Tournament in 2016, a trip that was cut painfully short when the Huskies got bounced in the second round by Kansas.

A lot has happened for the program since then and the Huskies now sit on the precipice of their triumphant return to the Big Dance. While the tournament is set to begin on Thursday, No. 7 seed UConn will have to wait until Saturday night to take on No. 10 Maryland inside Mackey Arena located in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Head coach Dan Hurley sat down with reporters via Zoom on Tuesday to discuss the team’s mindset heading into March Madness.

Back in the tournament

Hurley said his main two goals this season were to compete at the top of the Big East and make the NCAA Tournament. UConn accomplished both of those goals.

After struggling at times in the middle of the season, UConn was one of the hottest teams in college basketball coming into the postseason. The Huskies won six of their last seven games, with their only loss coming to conference-leader Villanova by eight points.

UConn then took down DePaul, 94-60, in the second round of the Big East Tournament before falling to Creighton for the third time this season in the tournament semifinals.

“I think we’re a hard team to predict,” Hurley said. “Are we a one-and-done or can we make a run?”

KenPom favors UConn to beat Maryland by two points in the first round of the tournament. If that were the case, the Huskies would likely face No. 2 Alabama in the second round. From there, only those with super-human psychic abilities would be able to predict who UConn would face next.

Historically, UConn plays some of their best basketball in the postseason, so there may be some surprises in store.

The Bubble

Before any team can think about playing in the tournament, they have to go through the bubble process which includes testing and quarantining.

UConn has already experienced a bubble this season when they ventured to Mohegan Sun’s aptly named Bubbleville. UConn got one of their marquee wins that weekend — a three-point victory over USC — but had to miss the next four games due to a COVID-19 pause within NC State’s program.

“It’s probably similar to the Mohegan experience and it’s definitely gotten easier,” Hurley said.

Prior to their first game, the Huskies are hoping to have three regular practices. One of those will take place at the Mackey Arena, which is an hour and 45 minutes from the hotel each way, according to UConn Athletics. The two others will take place closer to Indianapolis, where all 64 teams are stationed.

R.J. Cole

Point guard R.J. Cole sustained a minor concussion during UConn’s loss to Creighton. He missed the rest of the game and Hurley said he’s yet to be cleared to play.

“He’s still in the protocol,” Hurley said. “We’ll see, I guess, where that goes. He had a minor concussion in that game, so we’ll know more later in the week.”

Cole has been instrumental in UConn’s most recent successes this season. In the eight games leading up to the Creighton loss, Cole averaged 15 points, 5.1 assists, and 1.3 steals per game.

“He brings toughness on the defensive end,” senior Isaiah Whaley said about Cole. “Whenever there’s pressure on [James Bouknight] he takes some of the load off offensively. Then he shares the ball, he gets everybody involved.”

Adama Sanogo

One of the brightest parts of UConn’s season has been the emergence of freshman Adama Sanogo. While he has struggled at times to stay on the court due to foul trouble, Sanogo has made an immense impact in the post.

“The guy has been incredible this year, I think you’re looking at one of the best players in the conference next year,” Hurley said.

Sanogo averaged 7.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and just under a block per game this season, including two postseason contests. He has scored in the double digits each of the last four games.

“People don’t understand how good of a defender Adama [Sanogo] is,” Whaley said.

According to KenPom, Sanogo posted the best defensive rebounding rate in the Big East during conference play this year (25.5%) and also had the third-best block% in the conference (6.8%).

If Whaley and Carlton do not return next season, Sanogo will be the only returning true post player on the team. The Huskies will add 2021 recruit Samson Johnson to that mix as well but will still have some big shoes to fill down low.