Historically, UConn men’s basketball has featured a strong, star-laden backcourt. But after some roster turnover this offseason, the Huskies have a new-look guard group.
The expectations on Jordan Hawkins are more or less unprecedented in the history of the UConn program. The rising sophomore had a promising rookie season in college, and displayed plenty of potential, but averaged fewer than six points per game. This season, he’ll likely be asked to be the team’s leading overall scorer. The last time a player went from six or fewer points per game one season, then led UConn in scoring the next season?
Len Carlson in 1961. Or maybe 1997, if you want to count Rashamel Jones, who ended up being supplanted by Richard Hamilton as the top scoring option by the end of the year anyway. Suffice to say, what the team is expecting from Hawkins is a tall task.
To his credit, he seems primed to be ready for the role. Hawkins had some growing pains last season, making a few silly freshman mistakes at key moments and having a streakier shot than it looked like he deserved, but everything seemed to get him ready for a season where he might need to be The Guy for UConn ahead of schedule.
Is he ready for a jump this big? We’ll just have to see. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this became an intermediary season before a leap to superstardom as a junior. But with the potential he showed last season, and a surprising headiness for a freshman, maybe he’s ready to make history.
Tristen Newton, a senior who spent the last three seasons at East Carolina, comes into the 2022-23 season as the most accomplished of the incoming transfers. Capable of playing both guard spots — but with plenty of experience running the point — Newton made the All-AAC second team last season despite playing on a Pirates squad that only finished ninth in the conference — without much help around him, either.
Adjusting to the speed of the Big East and coming into a situation where he won’t be the primary offensive option will both be challenges for Newton. At 6-foot-5, he has the size for a major conference, but it remains to be seen whether his skills will translate as readily as RJ Cole’s did upon his own arrival in Storrs.
Newton’s scoring volume and playmaking ability stand out as his two biggest attributes, but the effectiveness of both is in question as he makes the jump to tougher competition. Newton is only an average outside shooter, converting threes at a .333 rate last season, and he struggled to finish inside during his first two seasons in Greenville. The jump in assist rate may mask some of his deficiencies as the primary ball-handler, since he also had the most turnovers in the conference last year.
Newton may be best served as a combo guard, though Dan Hurley’s lack of options for a traditional point guard may push the senior back into the role. He clearly has passing vision and the ability to knock down shots — it should be noted he’s also an excellent free-throw shooter — and the hope is that the lesser workload will help Newton settle into a spot that allows him to perform at his highest efficiency instead of at his most voluminous.
The fifth-year senior from San Diego has already earned himself the nickname of Joey California, owing to his emerging chemistry with his new team despite being the last incoming transfer on the roster. As the least-prominent of these transfers, we previously took a dive into the tape on Calcaterra, and what came out was mostly positive.
Before anyone buys into the preseason hype too much, Calcaterra will probably just be a spot-up shooter off the bench. The good news is there’s a high chance he’ll be a very good spot-up shooter off the bench, and that’s something that this Huskies team sorely needs.
Last season, Calcaterra struggled to create his own shot within a truly terrible San Diego offense, playing a role that simply did not suit his abilities. On a UConn team where good passing and playmaking can open up opportunities for him, he’s almost certain to see a big improvement in his overall production.
It’s unlikely he’ll develop into the next Rashad Anderson or Niels Giffey, but the Huskies were desperate for shooting depth last season, and a player like Calcaterra can only help add to the bench’s offensive output. If his admirable defensive effort can turn into defensive stops with better coaching this season, he has a chance to be a difference-maker in conference play.
Despite the previous paragraphs, Calcaterra likely isn’t even the best shooter among UConn’s incoming transfers, and that’s due to Nahiem Alleyne. The senior off-guard put up consistent outside scoring throughout his three seasons in Blacksburg, averaging a .387 mark for his collegiate career.
Of course, Alleyne isn’t only a three-point shooter, otherwise he wouldn’t be in contention for a starting spot. He’s comfortable setting up a fast break and looks to get the ball downcourt in a hurry, though he looks a bit more at ease making a pass than finishing himself. In fact, his biggest weakness may be inside scoring since his shot selection isn’t that strong when he’s forced to create for himself. He also misses more opportunities at the rim than you’d expect.
Alleyne is a team player though, and rarely forces shots. At times, that appeared to be him disappearing from games (see: his 1-3 mark from the floor in last year’s first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Texas), but that shouldn’t be confused for being afraid of the moment (see: a game-high 28 points in the Hokies’ first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Florida in 2021).
His passivity may end up being a good thing for the Huskies, as last year’s team settled for shots far too often in losses. Between Alleyne and Calcaterra, Hurley is almost guaranteed to have at least one off-ball shooting threat on the court at all times. For a team that may be missing a traditional point guard, having easy looks from the outside may be the best thing for on-court chemistry.
One unexpected challenger for the role of starting point guard is Hassan Diarra, a junior from Texas A&M and the younger brother of former UConn forward and current director of player development Mamadou Diarra. He was a featured bench player with the Aggies, an underrated team that barely missed out on a March Madness bid, but was still trusted enough to take a buzzer-beater in the SEC Tournament.
Diarra, a New York guard in every sense of the word, is better known for his tenacity and hard-nosed defense. Since several of the Huskies’ top perimeter defenders from last season have moved on, Diarra’s number will be called upon fairly often, and while he may be slightly undersized, he’s more than capable of handling opposing point guards. A defense of Diarra and Andre Jackson would be very difficult for opposing ball-handlers to break.
Where Diarra needs to improve is with his shot selection, which was often his biggest drawback with the Aggies. His three-point selection has not yet proven reliable enough for him to draw from that well so often, and his drives to the basket can be forced, often taking a contested shot instead of pulling back and restarting the offense.
Nonetheless, UConn will need defense this season. Hurley has shown the ability to mold players into much better defenders, so a player like Diarra who already has a sizable defensive tool belt could have the opportunity to be an impact player as a result.
And now, the walk-ons.
Andrew Hurley, as the coach’s son, is not likely to make a significant impact on the team. He’s not unskilled for a walk-on, especially given his pedigree as the son of a former standout Big East point guard and nephew of an
overrated NBA bust former All-American, but the 18 minutes he’s played as a Husky don’t give us much to work with in terms of having a complete scouting report.
Andre Johnson, Jr.
Fans of the TV show Black-ish may recognize the name Andre Johnson Jr., but the basketball player (obviously unrelated to the fictional character) deserves to make a name for his own. A Bristol native, Johnson is a preferred walk-on who had a lot of contact from Division I teams in the northeast and when an offer didn’t come through, Hurley jumped at the chance to add him to the roster. Johnson’s coach at South Kent Prep was former UConn assistant Raphael Chillious, which may have given the Huskies an advantage in his truncated recruitment. He’ll add a scoring ability to the scout team with the potential to get some playing time in the future.
Hendry, another preferred walk-on, is also thought of as a shooter due to a productive post-graduate year at Montverde Academy. With some potential in his jumper, UConn may benefit from having his experience joining the scout team.