UConn avenged an earlier loss to Seton Hall with a big road win Wednesday night, defeating the Pirates 69-58 to clinch third place in the Big East in their first year in the conference. The Huskies have one game remaining before heading to Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament.
Here are some takeaways from UConn’s penultimate regular season game of the 2020-21 season.
Sanogo’s Career Day
Ryan Goodman: Sanogo was sensational in this one. Early on, UConn looked completely out of sync and turned the ball over three times in the first two minutes. Sanogo got the Huskies out of the slump, scoring six of UConn’s first eight points and getting them right back in the game.
Sanogo really had to work for all of these points too, backing down his defender, gaining solid post position, and lofting the softest floater since Alex Oriakhi right over his defender. It’s evident his footwork is rapidly improving too, as he had multiple post moves where he faked up and then drop-stepped past his defender for an easy lay-in. He’s also a very good low-post passer.
It’s been downright inspiring to see the progress he’s made over the course of his first season in a Husky uniform. If Sanogo can keep this up, this March could be very very interesting.
A balanced team effort
Goodman: I would argue this was UConn’s most promising win of the season. Playing on the road on Seton Hall’s senior night, UConn was only a 1.5 point favorite. They proceeded to win by eleven, with FOUR players scoring 14 points or more. This was only the third time Bouknight has not led the team in scoring when he’s been active.
Tyrese Martin, the Huskies third-leading scorer at 11.6 points per game, was the only starter to not hit double figures. Martin contributed in other ways, though, with six rebounds, two steals, and an assist. Isaiah Whaley’s performance on both ends of the floor may have been the biggest difference-maker. He scored 17 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and played great defense on the potential favorite for Big East Player of the Year Sandro Mamukelashvili, who went 7-20 from the field. “Mamu” ended the night with 20 points but seldom scored when Whaley was guarding him.
“Isaiah was obviously MVP of the game, with just making things so hard for Mamu, making him earn those numbers, and then obviously 17 and 10, with that defense,” Dan Hurley said.
It’s very promising to win in this fashion, especially this late in the season. UConn is now 9-2 when James Bouknight is in the lineup, and the fact that they didn’t have to rely on his usual cool 20 points per night, against a top team in the Big East, speaks volumes about the way UConn is playing right now. Bouknight did end up with 16 points, but five of those came in the waning minute and a half when Seton Hall was intentionally fouling to try to keep the game alive.
An Identity Down Low
Patrick Martin: A bit more on the No. 1 ranked scoring defense in the Big East. As Sanogo comes into his own, his cohesion with Whaley is becoming more evident. The former is a traditional back-to-the-basket big with a burgeoning array of post-moves. The latter is a rim-running modern big who offers flexibility switching on defense. Together, the two make for an elite rim-protecting unit without sacrificing spacing on the offensive end. Whaley’s mobility as a screener leaves the paint open for Sanogo to cook up barbeque chicken. And defenders are forced to choose to either guard Sanogo one-on-one or send help, in which UConn has enough shooters and slashers around to make them pay.
On defense, Sanogo is quicker than you think on hedges and recoveries and hasn’t fouled out since the Seton Hall loss on Feb. 6. Whaley is stronger than you think in iso situations, as evidenced by his stuffs on Mamu last night. The way the two complement each other is a hybrid reminiscent of the Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith pairing in 2011. Oriakhi was the more traditional anchor, while Smith was the switchy four that guarded the quicker bigs.
And when you have elite rim protection inside, it gives the guards carte blanche to ratchet up the ball pressure. It’s okay if UConn’s guards get beat on the dribble now because there’s formidable help on the way. That’s the trickle-down effect of the Sanogo/Whaley pairing.
The defense as a whole is just elite and we really need to appreciate that.
Dan Hurley. The Carpenter.
Aman Kidwai: After clinching third place in the Big East, the Huskies will have a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament and face the winner of the 6/11 game in the Quarterfinals. They have almost certainly locked up an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. The team is firing on all cylinders and, oh would you look at that, the calendar has flipped to March.
While we certainly thought this UConn team could be good, nothing is a given. This year’s team, in particular, battled through COVID-19 stoppages and injuries to key players to get to this point. Dan Hurley and his squad deserve a ton of credit for their perseverance, resilience, and for blending a lot of new talent together to make this season possible.
As Hurley reminded us in his post-game interview, UConn ended its last season before he got there ranked 179th in KenPom. Right now they’re ranked no. 25 in KenPom and 34th in the NET rankings, and they have a very good case for being even better than that when we consider how much of those rankings are influenced by results of a team that was not at full strenght.
At any rate, the way Hurley and his staff have rebuilt the roster over the past three years is nothing short of incredible. Of course, recruiting has been great all around, but the transfers who have been a key part of this year’s team, Tyrese Martin and RJ Cole, really helped them add experience to the roster and get over the top.
It’s fun to be a fan of college basketball again
Aman: College basketball has changed a lot since the last time UConn was a perennial contender. I have to admit, I had fallen off on my knowledge of the national landscape and a large part of it was that I stopped watching games that didn’t have UConn in it. The AAC was brutal, none of the stakes mattered to us, and things had reached such a dire state for UConn that even watching those games was often a painful experience.
That ended this year, as the Big East has given us lots of great non-UConn games to watch and they matter a lot — either to scope out a future opponent for a big upcoming UConn game or to see how the final standings shake out for seeding in the Big East Tournament.
It is so great to care again, to be involved in the national discussion of college hoops, and to see UConn right in the middle of the conversation about everything. Cherish it. It was not a given. We are truly blessed to have this.
Isaiah Whaley, Big East Defensive Player of the Year
Dan Madigan: Isaiah Whaley has had one of the most interesting journies across his college career of any UConn player. As a freshman, Whaley could rebound a bit, play some defense, but not really much else. Now, he’s become one of the best shot blockers in the country and improved his strength and speed to guard all five positions and hedge ball screens better than just about anyone.
Whaley’s statline in the win over Seton Hall embodies his growth over the last four years — 17 points, 10 rebounds (five offensive), and two blocks, while locking down one of the most unguardable players in the Big East in Sandro Mamukelashvili. His growth as a player has come on the offensive end too — Whaley was strictly an around the basket, putback scorer as a freshman, but now has a legitimate array of post moves and can easily step out to hit midrange jumpers and 3-pointers, where he’s shooting 37.5 percent this season.
While Whaley has grown offensively, his biggest contribution remains on the defensive end, where he’s the heart and soul of the best defense in the conference and one of the best in the country. His instincts as a shot-blocker allow the guards to be aggressive in the passing lanes for easy steals. His ability to guard all five positions with ease enables him to switch on every pick and roll, preventing any miscommunications or lapses leading to easy buckets. Lastly, his energy and tenacity on the boards make up for any height advantage some opponents may have.
I understand there is some hype for Seton Hall’s Ike Obiagu to win Defensive Player of the Year, but to me, the honor has to go to Whaley. While Obiagu may be the better shot blocker, no one impacts more possessions on defense every game than Whaley.