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Reassessing Big East expectations for UConn men’s basketball

The Huskies have established themselves as one of the top teams in the country. What does this mean heading into Big East play?

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s basketball is off to a relatively unexpected red-hot start. After beginning the season outside of the AP Top 25, the Huskies have vaulted up the polls to No. 3 at the end of non conference play, boasting impressive wins over the likes of Alabama, Oklahoma State and Florida amongst others. Prior to the season, Big East coaches tabbed the Huskies to finish fourth in the conference behind Creighton, Villanova and Xavier. With what we know about this team, our men’s basketball writers took the time to reassess the Huskies’ Big East expectations prior to kicking off conference play Saturday against Butler.

Where will UConn finish in the Big East standings? The Huskies were tabbed to finish fourth in this year’s Preseason Coaches’ Poll.

Patrick Martin: There’s no other answer here except first, unless you’re a Silky Johnson-level hater. There are plenty of contenders; Creighton will eventually remember how to shoot, Villanova will right the ship, and Xavier is never easy. But all of those teams have some kind of weakness that’s flared up in non-conference play; the Bluejays’ depth, the Wildcats’ inexperience and the Musketeers’ defense. There are always potential hiccups —look no further than this Saturday’s road game versus Butler. The Huskies are 1-9 in conference openers in the last 10 years, and this isn’t LaVall Jordan’s Bulldogs. But barring injuries or a dramatic regression to the mean for several players, the Huskies have a pole position on their first regular season conference title since 2006.

Shawn McGrath: This is the Huskies’ regular season title to lose. UConn is the betting favorite to finish first and KenPom doesn’t have anyone finishing within five games of Dan Hurley’s squad. I wouldn’t necessarily predict UConn goes 17-3 and likely finishes something like 15-5 or 16-4, but it’s definitely within reach. I would be surprised if they lose a home game by more than a possession or two and the only teams that truly have the capability to take a game off the Huskies are Creighton and Xavier, though Villanova, Marquette and St. John’s definitely can make UConn pay for an off night.

Tucker Warner: At this point, I think you have to say first. As Patrick mentioned, there’s still time for a lot to go wrong, whether that’s injuries or another team finally putting it all together, but what we’ve seen from UConn so far has yet to be matched by any other Big East team. Despite their issues early in the season, the biggest challenger might be Villanova, which is a very different team when Cam Whitmore is healthy, and will be getting another reinforcement soon with Justin Moore’s upcoming return.

Ryan Goodman: A large portion of the Big East has been a letdown this year except for a few teams, UConn obviously headlining that shortlist. The Huskies have proven to be far and away the best team in the conference this season so at this point they are definitely in the driver’s seat for taking home the Big East regular season title. UConn is the only team in the conference that is ranked in the top 20 per every college basketball analytic ranking you can find. Big East play is always tough, but UConn looks up to the task of taking home its first outright Big East regular season title in over 20 years.

UConn is currently undefeated at 11-0. Which game left on the schedule has the best chance of becoming their first loss?

Martin: A New Year's Eve afternoon road game against Xavier. The Muskies will potentially be coming off a road win vs. St. John’s, and the Cintas Center will be packed to its 10,250 limit with Saturday drinkers. If the Huskies struggle to put away Butler this week, then a similar environment but against a better team spells trouble to end 2022.

McGrath: Xavier is definitely the right answer. Butler shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge, even on the road, and the Musketeers are the next team UConn faces away from Connecticut, but instead of re-hashing Patrick’s analysis, let’s talk about the Villanova home game, which comes immediately prior. The XL Center should be bumping after last season’s classic inside the same building and this isn’t the same Villanova team, but that doesn’t mean the Wildcats aren’t dangerous and are unable to pluck a game away from a team having an off night.

Warner: The game at Xavier is the right answer, but I’ll talk about another matchup I have my concerns about, the January 15 and February 25 games against St. John’s. The Johnnies have excellent perimeter defenders that can play in a variety of styles, and a physical gameplan that attacks ballhandlers could mean the first real trouble we’ve seen for the UConn offense.

Goodman: I’m honestly a tad worried about this upcoming Butler game as I do think it will be closer than most think but UConn should be able to leave Hinkle Fieldhouse with a win. I’ll follow suit and pick Xavier. Unless Cam Whitmore turns into Zion Williamson over the next few games, I don’t see the Huskies losing to Villanova in Hartford and Xavier is probably the second-best team in the Big East. The Cintas Center will be rowdy on New Year’s Eve.

Big East game you’re most excited about

Martin: A two-way tie between Creighton and Villanova. Finally, a win over Creighton to shut up Ryan Kalkbrenner, or some overdue Big East hegemonic rebalancing versus Villanova? Both would be incredibly sweet.

McGrath: The home game against Creighton will be part of a big day for UConn athletics. While this won’t be the ranked matchup we anticipated before the season, it’s still a game on network television played on campus, while the men’s hockey team will face off at Fenway Park. It’s also the best chance for UConn to suffer a home loss the rest of the year, according to KenPom. If the Huskies take it home, they will be even heavier Big East favorites and will likely sit no worse than 5-1 in conference play with its first game against Marquette looming.

Warner: Give me Villanova at home again. This game won’t reach the emotional peaks of last year’s matchup—one of the biggest regular season games in program history—but this will be a great test for the Huskies against a longtime rival. It might not look like it now, but a win against Villanova would be a great resume booster for a team that has aspirations of being a 1-seed at the NCAA Tournament.

Goodman: Even though Creighton has stumbled to a 6-5 record this season, its played one of the toughest non-conference schedule and are definitely still a top team in the league. Give me that Saturday Gampel game at high noon against the Bluejays any day of the week. Greg McDermott will have his guys ready to go in that one. Should be fun.

UConn player who has surprised you the most this far

McGrath: Donovan Clingan has been tremendous. He’s been one of the most efficient players in the country, even if it has been in relatively small doses, and did so after playing against CIAC competition last season at Bristol Central High School. The jump from facing off against Farmington High School to Alabama is one of the biggest leaps a college freshman can take and it seems like he’s barely missed a beat. He’s been better defensively than expected and has really helped take the load off of Adama Sanogo, permitting Hurley to run the five spot like a true platoon.

Martin: Nahiem Alleyne, to the downside. His pedigree at Virginia Tech had many thinking he could to be the desperately-needed veteran presence while the rest of UConn’s inexperienced pieces got up to speed. But nobody envisioned the likes of Clingan, Alex Karaban, and Calcaterra being this ready, this fast. Even Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson had question marks regarding their increased role. As a result, Alleyne’s cold start from the field, combined with reduced usage on a loaded team, has led a loss of minutes. He spent all of the PKI forcing things and had no confidence in his shot. However, he remains a plus defender, and got back on track a little vs. Long Island (11 points on 4/6 from the field.) Nahiem the Dream will certainly have a role on this team this season, but it may not be the double-digit scorer some had envisioned.

Warner: I’ll go with Joey Calcaterra. When I broke down his film from his time at San Diego, I anticipated he’d be more productive at UConn, but I didn’t expect this. Sure, that 56.8 percent 3-point percentage isn’t going to remain that high all year (well, probably), but it’s clear that he is much, much better when he isn’t forced to create for himself in order to get a clean shot. The spacing that the Huskies lineup provides around him gets him into a lot of one-on-one matchups that he’s capable of winning off the dribble, as a quality finisher and straight-line dribbler. The shot is the real winner though, and he’s using only a featured role to become one of the biggest offensive producers on the team.

Goodman: This is such a hard one to pin because the three that were just mentioned are all phenomenal answers. I’m going to go with Clingan though, who is already well on his way to becoming one of the elite bigs in college basketball by as early as next season. He’s miles ahead of where most expected him to be and continues to play up to the competition time and time again. I’ve said this before but it’s almost unfair that Hurley gets to throw Clingan out there when Sanogo needs a breather. This team doesn’t skip a beat and may even get better on defense.

Will someone from UConn win a Big East individual award? (Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year)

McGrath: Give me Clingan for freshman of the year and Sanogo for player of the year. If UConn really runs away with the Big East like the metrics say is possible, then tack on Hurley for coach of the year. The Huskies are the class of the league and Clingan has been one of the best freshmen in the country, while Sanogo is No. 4 in KenPom’s player of the year standings. The two also hold the top spots on the site’s all-league performers list. Meanwhile, Hurley will have no choice but to get the award if he wins the conference by two or three games, which is certainly possible.

Martin: Clingan will be in a battle with Whitmore for freshman of the year. Whoever avoids the rookie wall the best should lock it up. Defensive player of the year will be a monstrous battle between Jackson and Posh Alexander; it could go down to how voters value defense. If it's versatility, it has to be Jackson. If you go by the more traditional steals and ball pressure route, Alexander is your guy. Sanogo has the inside track on his award, but will the loaded team around him mean his stats and usage take a hit? If Clingan takes home freshman of the year, that may mean his outperformance takes the player of the year award honors from his teammate. Kam Jones at Marquette or Manny Bates at Butler could also sneak in there just because they are the focal point of their team. Coach of the Year, as it has done in the last three years, goes to whoever outperformed their preseason ranking the most. Given the Huskies were ranked what is now an absurd fourth in preseason polling, this award goes to the Carpenter.

Warner: If they keep this up, they might win every award. Sanogo seems like a lock for player of the year at this point, as does Clingan for freshman player of the year. Jackson is the best defensive player in the Big East (though Alexander does come close) and is having a massive impact on UConn’s fourth-ranked defense by KenPom. And, of course, the Huskies are not only wildly exceeding expectations, but are doing it with a rotation that features only three players on last year’s team. Outperforming preseason polls and the degree of difficulty you’re coaching under are normally the two biggest things that determine Coach of the Year voting.

Goodman: It’s very possible that UConn sweeps, but I think they come up just short of this feat. Sanogo has been sensational and will fulfill his preseason player of the year selection. Hurley is definitely the favorite to win the coach award, (maybe even nationally at this point), and barring a collapse of sorts in conference play, should take home his first Big East Coach of the year award. I also agree that Whitmore and Clingan will be fighting for Freshman of the Year come season’s end, but think Whitmore wins out just because of the greater opportunity and stats he’ll accrue. Villanova needs him more and I don’t think it will be long until he becomes “the guy” for them. Posh Alexander already won the defensive award last year (shared with Isaiah Whaley), so I’m going to go with the most versatile defender in the country in Jackson to take home this honor. Manny Bates of Butler could also challenge for this, but Jackson is the quintessential jack-of-all-trades on the defensive end.