It’s 35 degrees in New England, the leaves are changing colors, and John Fanta is asking Dan Hurley about the Cincinnati Bengals. That can mean only one thing; basketball season is around the corner.
The Big East had its 2022-2023 media day, with info trickling in from around the league ahead of the UConn men’s basketball season opener versus Stonehill, now less than three weeks away.
The Media Day held in Madison Square Garden saw commentary from Hurley and Adama Sanogo named Big East preseason Player of the Year, while fellow captain Andre Jackson, and Jordan Hawkins also attended.
A New Splash Brother?
If you heard Bill Raftery say “Sanogo, for three!” last year, you probably had a heart attack.
Pace and space may be all the rage in basketball, but it was absent from Storrs last year. This offseason has been all about finding the right pieces to put around Sanogo, but it also means getting the center more comfortable around the perimeter.
“When [Sanogo] plays against the bigger centers like Ryan Kalkbrenner of Creighton, it’s hard to just batter it into the low post,” Hurley said. “You have to be able to drag them away from the basket, where maybe he can drive on them or be a threat with a perimeter shot. We also like to post our bigger guards like Andre Jackson and it's hard to do that if Adama’s also down in the low post.”
“When you move them away from the basket, it opens up driving lanes for our perimeter people,” Hurley added. “We’re going to have a lot more skilled shooting on the court and if you get some of that from the five, you become really versatile.”
Teammates are bullish on Adama’s burgeoning touch.
“He’s been shooting the ball pretty well in practice,” said Jackson. “He’s been hitting shots all summer and all preseason. I’m 100% confident that he can hit those shots, and that would open up the floor a lot.”
UConn’s ceiling depends on how big of a leap the sophomore Hawkins and junior Jackson can make. Both were unnamed in the preseason all-league teams.
“The only team that matters is the one that gets voted at the end of the season,” Hurley said. “Both Andre and Jordan can play at an all-conference level this year.”
Jackson himself called Hawkins “one of the most talented players I’ve ever guarded. If it’s hard for me to guard him, I know he’s going to be hard for a lot of people to guard.”
“We need to get Tyrese (Martin’s) production from him. He’s one of the most beautiful shooters in a UConn uniform in some time,” Hurley said of Hawkins. “He has the toughness and mental makeup. We’re betting heavily on him and Andre to match the impact Tyrese and RJ Cole brought. Jordan flashed the ability and we’re banking heavy on it.”
Hurley sees first-round potential in both.
“I appreciate that he has an extreme amount of confidence in me,” said Hawkins. “He’s had that from day one since I got here. He has my back.”
“That’s what he told me he recruited me here as well,” Jackson said. “I believed in myself and Jordan’s believed in himself since before he was even in a college uniform. To have your head coach say that about your dream and goal is an honor.”
Space: The Final Frontier
In addition to Sanogo’s extended range, the offense will aim to have better spacing this year. “We have a lot of shooters,” Jackson noted. “Alex Karaban, Jordan, Joey Calcaterra are all very good shooters. This year, teams won’t be able to pack the paint because of the shooting we have on the floor. Then when you add Adama’s dominant presence inside, it will be hard to stop because you can’t send a double.”
Hurley even conceded that his defense-first mentality — some may even call it stubbornness — might need to be tempered.
“We’ve always been an aggressive ball pressure team that blitzes ball screens,” said Hurley. If we do that with Clingan, it could get messy. I’ve had to make some concessions on the defensive end, being less stubborn.”
Filling the Leadership Void
Hurley will take any chance he can get to gush about Jackson’s intangibles, leadership, and ability to change a game. “I never thought about having captains, I’ve always felt like everyone on the team has an obligation to carry themselves like a captain,” he said.
“Until I met Andre and started coaching him, I never really even thought about that captain piece. Last year, I thought it would have ruffled feathers of the older players to put him in that position. But with losing that older group that had been with us, he takes the true captain responsibility to heart in an old school way,” Hurley said.
“This isn’t coach-talk, he genuinely cares more about our success than his production...He’s the type of guy that, if he’s not organizing a team outing together for hibachi, he’s bringing the guys together to watch an NFL game on Sunday, or forcing them to get the gym where they don’t want to,” Hurley added.
You can hear it from Jackson himself the way he talks about mentoring the younger players.
“I try to teach Alex Karaban a lot. Adama tries to teach Samson Johnson a lot. And those are two guys that are competing a lot against each other. It’s about trying to find situations like that where we can both help out somebody on the team to get better, because we both have the experience.
“I’m teaching Alex a lot of defensive things, or how to be hitting people on target on passes. Simple stuff like walking your guy down before you catch the ball. Adama’s teaching Samson all kinds of back-to-the-basket moves, how to read the defense, how to set screens hold the screen, twist them, slip them, all of that.”
While Sanogo is admittedly way less vocal than his classmate, he’s aware of the respect he now commands.
“I feel like I didn’t do a good job being a leader last year because we had so many older guys, I couldn’t talk before them like that,” Sanogo said. “So this year I’m really trying to show that.”
- Depth arguably did UConn in last year. A lot of players last year that were supposed to play a role never saw time, and that meant a lot of wear and tear on the big man in the middle. Hurley is well aware: “I played Adama into the ground, he didn’t have the legs. The addition of Clingan will put him in a position to keep him fresh.” Hurley also raved about his guard depth: “scoring four through 10 will far exceed anything since my sixth year at Rhode Island. We have a stable of really good guards.”
- One of those transfer guards, Nyheim Alleyne has developed a rapport with Jackson. “We talk about different things that I do in my game or different things he does,” Jackson shared. “One thing he tells me a lot is like ‘Dre you keep getting that mid-range.’ That sort of thing, where we’re learning our strengths and weaknesses, helps us all come together.”
- The Hassan Diarra hype train keeps on chugging. The transfer from Texas A&M has, per his head coach, “a swagger and attacking, aggressive personality where you think you’re the best player on the court. He has an infectious self-belief.”