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Takeaways from UConn men’s basketball’s win over St. John’s

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Huskies pulled out yet another overtime win.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Despite dealing with some late-game drama once again, UConn men’s basketball picked up the win over St. John’s at Gampel Pavilion in overtime, dominating the Red Storm in the extra five minutes to secure an 86-78 victory. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the Huskies’ 11th win of the season.

Adama Sanogo is a star in the making

Dan Madigan: We’ve known all season that Sanogo is one of UConn’s best players, but the sophomore big man proved it on Tuesday night. The Mali native dominated the Red Storm for all 40 minutes he was on the floor, scoring 26 points and adding 17 rebounds with six blocks.

We’ve already seen Sanogo put up gaudy numbers at times this season, but this was by far the best overall performance of his career. Aside from his usual dominance in the post and on the glass, Sanogo showcased a much-improved midrange game, better defensive footwork/shotblocking ability, and hit a clutch free throw in regulation to force overtime.

It was certainly a little surprising to see he wasn’t named either preseason All-Big East team to start the season, but by the time this year is over, he’ll certainly be there. With the way he is playing now, he has a legitimate case for Big East Player of the Year if the Huskies can keep rolling.

Ryan Goodman: It’s between this and the Auburn game (career high 30 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks) for Sanogo’s best performance of the year but I’m going to have to agree with Madigan here. While the show against Auburn was on a national stage and against stiffer competition, Sanogo went through a bad stretch in that game that led him to finishing with a season-high eight turnovers.

The player we saw in this game seemed even much improved from earlier this season against Auburn. One of the most crucial areas of improvement for Sanogo that I’ve mentioned multiple times throughout the year is his ability to pass out of the post and find open guys when the opposing team decides to try to send a cheat defender or blatantly double-team. In this one, we saw Sanogo not only recognize this, but also make the correct read and find an open man on the perimeter or someone cutting to the basket when the opportunity presented itself. He did only have two assists on the night (which actually increased his season totals by about 20%! Hooray!), but he is learning different ways to maximize his effectiveness, which is also a credit to the UConn coaching staff.

Not only this, but Sanogo made four or five mid-range jumpers in this game, the type of shots we have seldom seen him take in his short UConn career thus far. If Sanogo can continue to be this dominant on the block while also harnessing the ability to become an adept passer out of the post, and is hitting 12-15 footers with regularity? Just give him All-Big East first team already. It’s a wrap.

Offensive woes

Madigan: Much like having James Bouknight last year, Sanogo’s talent and with RJ Cole’s shot-making ability, hides some real flaws that UConn has on the offensive end. While Dan Hurley has run some exceptional set plays out of dead ball situations and time outs this year, there’s an uncomfortable amount of sets that end with Cole trying to bail the Huskies out late in the shot clock.

Cole is without a doubt the team’s best option to create a shot, but it seems like the team is relying on him too much late in games. He definitely has the talent to hit big shots, but with all the minutes he plays — and the fact that he is fresh off of recovering from COVID-19 — the Huskies need another player to be able to create shots late. With Jalen Gaffney still struggling mightily, the only other logical option is Tyrese Martin.

Cole World

Patrick Martin: Sanogo’s Big East First Team snub got a lot of guffaws, rightfully so. But the way Cole is playing, his preseason Second Team honor might end up a Freezing Cold Take too. FS1 flashed this graphic last night: Cole is one of 10 players in D1 averaging 16+ points, 4+ assists, and 1.5 steals per game.

Cole deferred to backcourt partner James Bouknight last year, but Sanogo’s gravitational pull inside this year has opened up space for the point guard. Credit also goes to Martin, who’s efficiency on offense allowed Cole’s usage to rise this year.

After the St. John’s game, the Howard transfer is fourth in the Big East in scoring, assists, assist to turnover ratio, and third in free throw percentage. His assist rate of 40% leads the conference. Count me as one of the initial doubters that his skillset couldn’t translate to a higher level. It’s not just offense; his active hands and willingness to draw contact on defense makes him a complete player.

We all know how lost UConn looked last year when he was knocked out (literally) of the the Creighton game in the Big East tournament. The Huskies looked as equally declawed last week versus Seton Hall when he fouled out.

Last night, when Cole picked up his third foul, UConn was up 11. St. John’s was able to hang around while he sat and trim the lead back down to two possessions until Hurley was forced to bring him back in. Until UConn can find a cure for the offensive woes referenced above, it’s on Cole to keep the offense humming. The good news is for now he appears ready to play the part.

March identity forming

Martin: This is how UConn can achieve its lofty goals, with an inside-out combo like Sanogo and Cole ascending to All-Big East First Team status. One of the main offseason narratives was; what is the identity of this team post-Bouknight? Two months into the season, there are thankfully more answers than questions.

The exciting part of it is UConn has a wide array of complementary pieces to fit around these two, when utilized correctly.

Need size and toughness? Martin is a picture-perfect backcourt mate to Cole. Need shooting? Tyler Polley can stretch the floor. Trouble with the press or need to up the tempo? Andre Jackson brings playmaking and a third ball-handler. Isaiah Whaley fills the cracks defensively. Akok Akok —although still being criminally underused — is a hybrid three-and-D off the bench. Jordan Hawkins, when he gets his confidence back, is instant offense off the bench. None of these guys are specialists per se, but they each have a unique skillset that can amplify a team’s ability when there’s already consistency from Sanogo and Cole.

Roles are starting to get defined at the right time of the season. Factor in a lighter portion of their schedule for the next two weeks, the Huskies can build some serious momentum heading into February and March.

Failure to pull away

Goodman: As we’ve noted the struggles with late-game possessions throughout the year, The Huskies have also had issues with putting games away.

Up 10 on Auburn with seven minutes to-go, the Tigers crawled back to take the lead with less than a minute in regulation. UConn did win this one and Auburn is an exceptional team (currently No. 4 in this week’s AP poll) but UConn had all the momentum in this one and led by as much as 15 in the second half. In the subsequent game, UConn led by seven with under four minutes to play against Michigan State, but poor shot selection and spotty defense lead to a 14-5 Spartan run to end the game and hand the Huskies their first loss.

In the game against Seton Hall, UConn was doing a superb job of stopping the Pirates’ momentum dead in their tracks on countless occasions, and almost the entire game. However, Kadary Richmond went nuclear in the second half and UConn let him almost single-handedly take them down.

The Seton Hall loss is more understandable since the Huskies hadn’t played in over two weeks, but the game was right there for the taking and they let it slip. Now we arrive at St. John’s, where UConn was in control almost the entire second half behind the dominant play of Sanogo, up nine with five minutes to go and all of the momentum on their side. St. John’s chipped away slowly, UConn’s offense sputtered, and the Huskies found themselves down by one in the final seconds. They were able to eke out this win in overtime, but the team’s lack of killer instinct that Dan Hurley so perfectly embodies and also preaches much of the time has been a bit surprising.