With a No. 17 ranking and a few days of separation following an ugly road win over DePaul, UConn men’s basketball (15-4, 6-2 Big East) returns to action Tuesday night to kick off a critical week of conference play for the Huskies. UConn will take on Creighton (12-7, 4-4 Big East) at the XL Center on Tuesday night, then head to Philadelphia for a key matchup against No. 12 Villanova on Saturday.
After playing relatively poor competition by Big East standards for the past two weeks against Butler, Georgetown, and DePaul, Creighton (No. 69 in KenPom) and Villanova (No. 7) represent a significantly tougher task.
UConn ended January as winners of five-straight games, but can’t afford to play like they did against DePaul if they intend to keep that streak alive. While guard RJ Cole (25 points) bailed the Huskies out against the Blue Demons, UConn will need more consistency from across the roster this week to have a chance at picking up two wins.
When: Tuesday, Feb. 1 — 6:30 p.m.
Where: XL Center — Hartford, Connecticut
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -9, over/under 134.5
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 72, Creighton 62
When UConn has the ball
Like always, UConn will look to get the ball inside to Adama Sanogo early and often. The sophomore big man struggled early in the first half against DePaul but still finished with 10 points and eight rebounds on 5-12 shooting. It was the first truly off night for Sanogo since the Huskies came back from their COVID-19 pause, but Sanogo looked more like his old self in the second half, crashing the glass and going to his baby hook off the left shoulder to get easy buckets.
Going up against DePaul’s Yor Anei and Nick Ongenda was no easy task, and Creighton has their own sizable shot-blocker in big man Ryan Kalkbrenner.
Kalkbrenner is one of the conference’s best shot blockers, averaging over three swats per game and an 11.2 block percentage, the 23rd-highest mark in the country. He’s got significant size as a legitimate 7-footer but weighs just 256 lbs. Sanogo has excelled against smaller defenders most of this season, so we’ll see if he can out-muscle Kalkbrenner or if the Creighton sophomore’s length will be enough to keep him in check.
Cole did just about everything in the win over DePaul, from carrying the offense for massive stretches to taking charges on the defensive end. He posted one of his best games of the season and is starting to get his 3-point stroke back. At Howard, Cole shot over 36 percent from deep in both seasons while being used much more heavily than he is being used at UConn. After shooting 38.6 percent from deep last season, Cole is shooting just 33.7 percent this year but has gone 4-10 from deep in his last two games.
If Jalen Gaffney can continue to play solid minutes after struggling with turnovers for most of this season, it can give Cole some much-needed rest and the ability to play off the ball sometimes. Gaffney’s looked better lately — which could give Cole some better 3-point looks and give the Huskies another look to throw at opponents.
When Creighton has the ball
The Bluejays boast a pretty balanced scoring attack, with four players averaging more than 10 points per game. Outside of five-year senior Alex O’Connell, Creighton is a relatively young but sizable team that relies heavily on its starters. O’Connell leads the way for the Bluejays at 12.8 points per game, followed closely by forward Ryan Hawkins (12.6 ppg) and Kalkbrenner (12.1 ppg).
Creighton relies on freshman Ryan Nembhard (11.8 ppg) heavily and the team does most of its work inside the perimeter, where they are shooting 55.1% on the season. Kalkbrenner is the team’s most efficient offensive player, using his size down low to crash the offensive glass for putbacks, but the sophomore big can also score on his own at times. Keeping the big man off the boards won’t be easy, but Sanogo and Isaiah Whaley may be able to use their experience and skill to limit his damage.
Even as a freshman, Nembhard has shown promise as a distributor with a team-best 4.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. Standing at just six feet, it will likely be up to Cole to keep him in check, as Tyrese Martin or Andre Jackson will have to defend the 6-foot-6 O’Connell.
While Creighton does most of its damage inside the arc, O’Connell and Hawkins are both solid shooters, shooting 37.9% and 35.5% respectively. Outside of those two, the rest of the Bluejays aren't exactly sharpshooters, so they'll most likely try to use their size throughout their lineup for baskets in the paint. While a team this efficient inside the arc will make their fair share of shots, it’s up to the Huskies’ frontcourt of Sanogo, Whaley, and Akok Akok to alter as many shots as possible while trying to keep the likes of Hawkins and Kalkbrenner off the glass.