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Takeaways from UConn men’s basketball’s Phil Knight Invitational victories

It was the Huskies’ coming out party.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Connecticut Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

No. 8 UConn men’s basketball is on fire to start the season. One of 20 undefeated teams and the only program with eight victories this year, the Huskies proved themselves as a national contender with a 3-0 performance in Portland, Oregon to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Here is what we took away from a spectacular weekend for the Huskies.

This team is legit

Shawn McGrath: It was really fun to watch UConn destroy sub-150 competition with extreme athleticism and length advantages, but we didn’t really learn that much about the Huskies from beating Boston University, Buffalo, Delaware State, Stonehill and UNC Wilmington by an average of 30.2 points. We found out about this team over the weekend.

Against a trio of top 50 teams in Alabama, Iowa State and Oregon, UConn had an average margin of victory of 19 points, running roughshod over everyone in its way. The Huskies are the only team ranked in the top 10 in adjusted defensive and offensive efficiency according to KenPom and is ranked No. 6 overall.

The Huskies have done it in different ways, shooting the lights out against Oregon, while also flexing its rebounding muscle against Iowa State. Out of the four factors for offense and defense on KenPom, Dan Hurley’s team is ranked in the top 35 of six of them, including No. 18 in effective field goal percentage against and No. 14 in offensive rebound percentage.

Oregon seems like it was overrated preseason and Iowa State was a particularly good matchup due to its lack of 3-point shooting and reliance on inside play, but the Alabama game was downright impressive. The Huskies led virtually the entire way and showed the country it is a true national title contender.

The depth is real

McGrath: This showed most prominently in Sunday night’s win over Iowa State. Adama Sanogo had four points and four fouls in 22 minutes, while Jordan Hawkins scored just two points and committed four fouls in only six minutes and missed virtually the entire second half. UConn still won by 18.

There was a lot of talk from the UConn camp about how deep the team was and it seems as though it was for real. The Huskies are truly running nine deep, even without Samson Johnson, and barely missed a beat with its two best offensive players committing more fouls than points scored against Iowa State.

It was unclear how Joey Calcaterra, Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan would contribute, while of the 10 players that have gotten significant time, seven were not in the rotation last season. Nobody knew how it was going to work once competition got good. It’s clearly been working as well as possible so far this year.

Ryan Goodman: This is the deepest team UConn has had since the 2008-09 Final Four squad, and even then it’s still a debate. Yes, both the 2011 and 2014 teams won a title, but neither of those teams were particularly deep. They won with star power, elite guard play, and disciplined basketball. Don’t take this the wrong way, though. This team is not better or more skilled by any means, but take a look at the numbers.

2008-2009: Seven players averaged over 25 minutes per game, with four in double figures.

2010-11: Seven players averaged over 15 minutes per game , with only two in double figures. The low dispersal was clearly affected by Kemba Walker’s 23.5 points per game, which ranked No. 5 nationally. Even with Cardiac’s magical numbers, though, only two other players put up more than eight points per game.

2013-14: Six players averaged over 15 minutes per game, and only three in double figures.

2022-23: The season is still young, but 10 players are currently averaging over 15 minutes per game, including injured Samson Johnson. Four are scoring in double figures, and two more between nine and 10 per game.

Over the buy games, UConn got a lot of production out of its new and unknown pieces, but the jury was still out on whether they would be able to continuously step up when the competition did. After ripping through three top-50 KenPom teams all in different fashions en route to a Phil Knight Invitational title, that case is now resoundingly closed. There are countless ways the Huskies can win and they go a legitimate 10 deep, which is almost unheard of in today’s college basketball. It’s already hard enough putting together a quality starting five, and Dan Hurley has two. This is a damn good team and one that can go very far. Further than we originally thought.

The shooting is, too

Dan Madigan: There were some real question marks about whether this team was actually good from 3-point range or not, especially with some wacky splits between the XL Center and Gampel Pavilion. All shooting concerns were officially put to bed on Thanksgiving night, as UConn set program records for made 3-pointers (17) and attempts (37) in the blowout win over Oregon.

The Huskies finished their time in Portland shooting 33-87 (37.9 percent) from deep, and now rank 69th nationally in 3-point percentage with a 37.1 percent mark on the season. While UConn shot just 7-26 against the Cyclones in the PKI final, Iowa State did boast an impressive perimeter defense and the Huskies got just six minutes from Jordan Hawkins, arguably the team’s best shooter, due to foul trouble.

Besides Hawkins, Alex Karaban, Tristen Newton, Adama Sanogo and the red-hot Joey Calcaterra are all shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc so far. Calcaterra, shooting 15-27 (56 percent) from deep, has emerged as a microwave scorer off the bench and provided a much-needed offensive boost when the likes of Karaban, Hawkins and Sanogo are off the floor. Joey California probably won't shoot over 50 percent from downtown all season, but it’s also fair to assume Nahiem Alleyne, a career 37.7 3-point shooter, will be better than his current mark of just over 24 percent.

Donovan Clingan is way ahead of schedule

Madigan: Heading into this season, everyone was aware of Clingan’s massive talent (and size), but figured there would be a steep learning curve to adjust to high-level Division I basketball after four years of dominating Connecticut public schools. Instead, Clingan has basically picked up from where he left off at Bristol Central High School, treating some of the country's best big men like the high schoolers he used to dunk on in the CCC.

Against standout Oregon big N’Faly Dante — a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award watchlist member — Clingan more than held his own with nine points, eight boards and four blocks. In limited time against Alabama, Clingan still added four points and five rebounds in just 11 minutes. In the PKI championship, Clingan terrorized Osun Osunniyi — another Abdul-Jabbar Watchlist member — for his first career double-double. The freshman posted 15 points and 10 boards in only 18 minutes to earn PKI MVP honors and help the Huskies handily defeated the Cyclones.

In all three games in Portland, Clingan (and Calcaterra) served as massive sparks off the bench, with Clingan in particular impacting the game on both ends. He’s already shown impressive footwork on both sides to get in position for rebounds and keep up with faster bigs, and remains an excellent passer to get out of double teams. He also provides an entirely different look than the faster, smaller Adama Sanogo, making the Huskies’ frontcourt an absolute nightmare to prepare for.

Goodman: Clingan had the body and size coming in, but had his work cut out for him with the massive jump to Big East play and a somewhat crowded frontcourt with Adama Sanogo set to dominate touches, Samson Johnson looking to take the classic sophomore leap, and Karaban more game ready due to the red shirt year. So we thought.

When Johnson went down in the season opener with a foot injury, minutes became available and saying Clingan has taken full advantage would be an understatement. The excitement around Clingan right now is reminiscent of Sanogo’s first two games when he flashed some major promise, albeit with different skill sets, but even he is way ahead of where Sanogo was at this point. Going toe to toe with some of the best big men offensively and defensively in the country, Clingan wasn’t simply looking like he belonged, he was straight up outplaying these extremely talented and seasoned players at times. Against Iowa State, Clingan dominated one of the best defensive big men in the country, putting up 15 points and 10 rebounds in just 18 minutes of game action. His per 40-minute rebounding and block numbers already rank top 15 in the country and he averages the least amount of minutes out of anyone in the top 100. Translation: Clingan has just scratched the surface of how good he can be.

What jumps out the most to me right now is his defensive discipline. Clingan has not committed more than three fouls in a game, and averages the exact same number of blocks per game as fouls (2.3). So, while 2.3 fouls in just above 15 minutes isn’t a great number, he’s been able to offset that with top tier rim protection.