Due to transfers in and out of the program, a highly-touted freshmen recruiting class and the loss of key contributors like Isaiah Whaley, RJ Cole, Tyrese Martin and Tyler Polley to graduation, the UConn men’s basketball team is going through more change than at any other time under head coach Dan Hurley.
Despite all of the turnover, the Huskies still figure to be in contention for the Big East crown and to return to the NCAA Tournament for a third-straight season. That’s largely due to their core of Adama Sanogo, Andre Jackson and Jordan Hawkins — the only three players on the Huskies’ roster that are a guarantee to be in the starting lineup when the season starts on Nov. 7 against Stonehill.
Sanogo took his game to another level last season as a sophomore, earning All-Big East honors and establishing himself as one of the best big men in the country. He averaged 14.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game as the focal point of the Huskies’ half court offense and made tremendous strides defensively, serving as a capable shot blocker and staying out of foul trouble thanks to his improved footwork. This year, Sanogo is a legitimate All-American candidate and has worked to expand his offensive game this past year by working on his 3-point shooting — a necessary skill to play in today’s NBA.
“We want Adama to shoot threes this year,” Hurley told reporters at the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce meeting last week. “Adama can shoot threes.”
Aside from Sanogo, Jackson marks another mainstay in UConn’s starting five. Jackson’s athleticism alongside his elite defensive skills and passing ability has helped him evolve into a unique but valuable player, and one that Hurley loves to have in his lineup. The head coach told reporters last week that Jackson is one of his favorite players that he has ever coached — an impressive achievement given the NBA talent Hurley has coached throughout his time as a high-level high school coach and at UConn.
Hurley: "Andre Jackson may be on my Mount Rushmore, and he may go down as one of my favorite players I've ever had."— David Borges (@DaveBorges) October 7, 2022
Jackson may not take the floor as the true point guard in the Huskies’ starting five, but there’s no question the ball will be in his hands constantly, especially on the fast break. Jackson excels in transition, using his speed and athleticism to blow by defenders or find an open cutter for an easy bucket. In the half court set, his shot is still improving, but made major strides shooting the ball last season.
As a freshman, Jackson shot 11.8 percent from three on 17 attempts, but made over 36 percent last season on four times as many attempts. With his ability to get to the rim, Jackson doesn’t need to be lights out from deep, but an improved 3-point shot would help keep the defense honest.
Hawkins came on strong towards the end of his freshman season before a series of injuries derailed his ability to contribute in the postseason. He’s been arguably the biggest stock riser for the Huskies this offseason, with Hurley and his teammates raving about his natural scoring ability.
While he put up solid if unspectacular numbers as a freshman (5.8 points, 2.0 rebounds per game), he showed flashes of being a No. 1 scorer, scoring double figures in seven of the 27 games he appeared in and demonstrating a smooth and repeatable shooting stroke. With Cole and Martin gone, Hawkins will likely shoulder a good chunk of the scoring load, and the UConn offense’s success this season will likely hinge on how much he improved since March.
As for the other two spots in the starting five, it’s still very much up in the air according to Hurley. Transfers Tristen Newton and Hassan Diarra are still battling it out for what is likely the final backcourt spot alongside Hawkins and Jackson.
Newton, a highly-touted transfer from ECU that averaged 17.7 points and five assists last season, would help take some pressure off of Sanogo and Hawkins on the offensive end with his ability to get to the rim and add additional size at 6-foot-5. Meanwhile, Diarra, who joins UConn from Texas A&M and was a major target for the Huskies out of high school, brings a defensive tenacity akin to Martin and could form the best defensive backcourt in the Big East alongside Jackson. It may not matter too much in the end — Hurley mentioned that both players will likely receive starters-level minutes
The final spot in the Huskies’ starting five is in the front court, with Samson Johnson and Alex Karaban looking like frontrunners. The two have very different profiles, with Johnson offering length and agility on defense that could pair well alongside Sanogo to give UConn another quality shot blocking combo. Karaban, a freshman that enrolled early last spring semester, could stretch the floor on offense with his 3-point shooting ability, which could give Sanogo more space in the post and allow the likes of Jackson, Hawkins and Newton to get in the lane.
Aside from those four players for the final two starting spots, it’s possible Nahiem Alleyne, a sharpshooter from Virginia Tech who shot 37 percent from deep last year, could push into the lineup if shooting becomes a bigger need. The same goes for Joey Calcaterra, the San Diego transfer dubbed “Joey California” from Hurley.
"Joey California will torch you if you're not on point."— David Borges (@DaveBorges) October 7, 2022