How to watch
When: 6:30 p.m. EST
Where: Prudential Center, South Orange, New Jersey
Radio: UConn Radio Network
Line: Pick Em, Over/Under 135.5
KenPom Predicted Score: Seton Hall 69, UConn 68
UConn and Seton Hall last faced off a little less than a month ago, the Huskies came out flat in their first game back from second COVID-19 related pause. After the Pirates led by as much as 18 points in the first half, the Huskies clawed back to make things interesting before falling 80-73 at Gampel.
Following that loss, head coach Dan Hurley and the Huskies have gotten their season back on track and cemented themselves as near locks to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016. After Seton Hall, UConn won four of its last six games and star guard James Bouknight returned from his elbow injury, injecting some sorely-needed life into what was becoming a stagnant offense.
Since coming back against Providence, Bouknight has basically looked like his pre-injury self and continues to be one of the best scorers in the country, averaging 20.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in his last four games. Had he not missed eight games this year due to his elbow injury and surgery, he’d be a virtual lock for Big East Player of the Year.
With Bouknight more or less out of the Big East Player of the Year picture due to a lack of games, the front runner seems to be Pirates’ big man Sandro Mamukelashvili. The 6-foot-11 senior is prolific and versatile scorer in his own right with a variety of moves to score in the post and the ability to step out and hit the three consistently.
He’s a matchup nightmare for most teams and UConn is no different, even with elite post defenders like Isaiah Whaley and Akok Akok. He torched the Huskies for 22 points on just 10 shots from the field in their last meeting, frequently using his size and positioning to get sent to the free throw line and is the Pirates’ leading scorer at 17.8 points per game.
Mamukelashvili did have one of his worst games of the season last time out though, scoring just 11 points and taking only four shots inside of the 3-point line in a surprising 61-52 loss to Butler on Feb. 24. The Pirates struggled to get anything going offensively in the loss, with guards Jared Rhoden and Myles Cale combining for just 20 points, well below their season averages. Standout transfer Bryce Aiken, who has missed multiple games due to ankle and knee injuries, also did not play but may be able to suit up against UConn, adding another talented scorer to a fresh Pirates team that hasn’t played in a week.
This matchup is the second-to-last game of the season for both teams and as of Wednesday, ESPN lists UConn as one of the last four byes while Seton Hall is one of the last four in. Wednesday night marks the last time either team has a shot to bolster its tournament resume in the regular season instead of just hurt it, as the Huskies’ and Pirates’ final games are not against tournament-caliber teams.
If that’s not enough on the line, the winner of this game will have a chance to take sole possession of third place in the Big East. When it’s March in the Big East, every game means something!
When Seton Hall has the ball
While Mamukelashvili is the star in this offense, the backcourt of Rhoden, Cale and possibly Aiken is nothing to scoff at. In Aiken’s absence, Shaver Reynolds has also emerged as a solid scorer, shooting 37.7 percent from downtown.
Seton Hall will run as many possessions as possible through Mamukelashvili, and while he’ll certainly look to score, he’s an excellent passer, averaging 3.1 dimes per game. He’ll have shooters around the perimeter to kick out to in Reynolds and Myles Cale, who is shooting 37.9 percent from deep.
If Aiken is available, he hasn’t played up to his usual standards this season but is arguably the second best scorer on the team on paper behind Mamukelashvili and the UConn defense will have to treat him as such. It also means slightly less minutes for big physical guards like Jahari Long and Takal Molson, which makes it less likely they’ll try to exploit a size advantage on UConn guard RJ Cole in the post.
When UConn has the ball
While Bouknight has basically picked up where he left off before his injury, Cole has taken his game to another level as of late. Since Bouknight’s return, he’s averaging 15.3 points and 4.3 assists per game — and that doesn't even account for his 24-point, seven-assist game against Xavier before Bouknight was healthy.
Cole is settling in to playing against higher quality competition, taking smarter shots and playing within himself. He’s routinely getting into the lane to hit runners late in the shot clock and isn’t afraid to pass it off to his teammates for open shots. With him and Bouknight playing as well as they are as of late, UConn is a different team and can hang with just about anyone.
As one of the bigger teams in the conference, the Huskies rarely are truly outmatched in the post, but they’re in for a tough one against Mamukelashvili and 7-foot-2 Ike Obiagu, who is one of the best shot blockers in the country. With Josh Carlton potentially unavailable, the front court of Whaley, Akok and Adama Sanogo will need to be efficient with their touches and continue to try and own the offensive boards against bigger opponents.
Mamukelashvili is probably the biggest matchup nightmare in the entire Big East, but the Huskies have enough size and defensive talent to at least try to keep him in check. Having Bouknight available this time around doesn’t eliminate the chance of a sluggish first half like UConn posted last game against the Pirates, but it makes it much less likely.
If Aiken was truly healthy, this game would probably go differently but I think Bouknight and Cole’s recent play will be enough to carry this team and win the first game of the season with fans in attendance, even if it’s in enemy territory.
UConn 72, Seton Hall 68.