When: Saturday, December 10 — 12:30 p.m.
Where: Gampel Pavilion — Storrs, Connecticut
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn - 39.5
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 89, LIU 52
After thoroughly dismantling Florida on the road Wednesday night, UConn has not only solidified its stance as a top-five team but also made a legitimate claim to be the No. 1 team in the country. The Huskies currently rank No. 2 in KenPom, behind just old American Athletic Conference foe Houston, and rank No. 4 nationally in BPR per EvanMiya.com. A matchup with LIU, currently No. 352 in KenPom, stands in the way of climbing up in the polls once again and the start of Big East play. The Sharks aren’t the worst team UConn has played all season — that honor goes to Delaware State, which the Huskies handily beat 95-60 in November — but it’s pretty close.
“It becomes a part of your identity and, and your mentality. And there’s areas where we haven’t done a very good job or turnovers, particularly from the guards is not been good. And it’s got to improve,” Dan Hurley said on keeping the momentum going. “But the controllables you know, that you can do every single night regardless of what the opponent does is your defense can always be elite. Your rebounding can always be elite, your relentless effort, and being all about we and not about me in terms of sharing the ball when you draw a second defender.”
Following the LIU game, there are no more cupcake games on the schedule, with just two teams (DePaul and Georgetown) ranking outside the KenPom top 100. And while Georgetown remains a dumpster fire clinging to the hopes that they can bring in Rick Pitino as their next head coach, DePaul is just outside the top 100 at No. 103. While the Big East may not be as strong as folks thought in the preseason, there are still hardly any easy games left on the Huskies’ schedule. Except for Saturday with the Sharks.
When LIU has the ball
The Sharks’ offense is towards the bottom of Division I in terms of offensive efficiency but has a competent backcourt that features their three top scorers. Freshman RJ Greene is one of three Sharks in double figures at 10.8 points per game and demonstrates the ability to get to the free throw line at a high clip. Greene is only a 52.2 percent shooter from the charity stripe, but is just outside the top 100 in fouls drawn per 40 minutes and relies heavily on getting fouled to get his points.
Greene is joined in the backcourt by UMKC transfer Jacob Johnson, who has been LIU’s most efficient offensive threat this season. Johnson ranks second in scoring with 10.9 points per game and leads the team with six rebounds per game. He’s shot the ball from deep in a limited amount but has been effective when doing so, making four of his nine 3-point attempts. He’s currently the only LIU rotation player with an offensive efficiency rating over 100, coming in at 100.1, and just matched his career high with 18 points in an 84-64 loss to UMass Lowell on Dec. 5.
Green and Johnson are joined by Canadian sophomore Marko Maletic, who leads LIU with 14.9 points per game and is the heaviest-used player in the Sharks’ offense. In his first season stateside, Maletic has held his own against quality competition, posting 22 points in a loss to Marquette and 11 in a loss to St. John’s. Outside of Quion Burns, he’s also LIU’s only legitimate 3-point threat, shooting 35.8 percent on 53 attempts. As a team, the Sharks have 116 3-point attempts total, meaning more than 45 percent of their 3-point attempts have come from Maletic.
While the backcourt has some size — Green, Johnson and Maletic are all around 6-foot-6 — the frontcourt is undersized except for 6-foot-10 Amadou Fall, who hasn’t played since before Thanksgiving. If Fall isn’t able to play, no other Shark is taller than 6-foot-8, and rebounding on either end will be a major problem for LIU.
When UConn has the ball
With so little size in the frontcourt, Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan will remain a focus offensively and should be able to do significant damage. If the game gets out of hand, it’s also possible Dan Hurley rolls out some smaller lineups with Alex Karaban or Richie Springs at the five spot to roll out the first non-garbage time Sanogo or Clingan-less lineup of the season.
Virginia Tech transfer Nahiem Alleyne is dealing with a hamstring injury, but should be good to go against the Sharks. While Alleyne has struggled so far in his first season at UConn, he may be able to use this game to get his feet back under him and see the ball go through the hoop a bit. Alleyne is shooting 23.3 percent from 3-point range this year — a far cry from his career average of 37.6 percent. A rebound game from him and Hassan Diarra, a normally stout defender who got beat a few times against the Gators and had some costly turnovers, could go a long one in getting UConn firing on all cylinders heading into conference play.
Turnovers have been an issue for this team so far this season, but the defense and rebounding have been good enough so far that it hasn’t yet mattered. The Huskies have committed 12 or more turnovers in five of their last six games and rank No. 151 in turnover percentage at 18.7 percent. If the likes of Tristen Newton, Diarra and Andre Jackson can remain careful with the ball, it makes the Huskies even more dangerous of a team in conference play.
“We want to clean up the obvious issues that we’ve had turning the ball over and put together a sustained 40-minute, relentless effort of execution and selflessness from the group, because that’s what’s gonna take to win conference games. This is a much, much different animal that’s approaching,” Hurley said.